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Data Encryption

Encryption involves making the contents of a document secret by encoding its data. Key encryption uses a sequence of bits (called a key) in an algorithm performed on the data in a document. After the document has been encrypted it can be read only by using the proper key to decrypt or reverse the algorithm. Security is provided because only the intended receiver of the document has the proper key required to decrypt the document.

Encryption can act as a last means of defense against an intruder. Even if an intruder has bypassed all other levels of security, the data may still be safe if it is encrypted.

If an encrypted document is valid, it provides the following assurances:

The document was actually send by the stated party
The document has not been altered in transit
The document can be viewed only by its intended recipient.

A hacker may attempt to read an encrypted document by repeatedly trying all possible sequences of bits to decrypt the file. This is referred to as a brute force attack. The more bits that are used in the key, the more difficult it is for a hacker to discover the key. For example, a 16 bit key can have one of 2^16 possible different values. A 128 bit key can have one of 2^128 possible different values. Obviously, it's going to take a hacker much longer to crack a document encrypted with a 128 bit key than to crack a document encrypted with a 16 bit key.

Encryption Algorithms

DES (Data Encryption Standard) is an encryption algorithm developed by IBM in the 1970s. DES uses a 56 bit key. Today's powerful computers make it possible for a hacker to crack a DES key within a couple of days. 3DES (Triple DES) provides higher security by using three different 56 bit keys to encrypt a document.

Today more advanced encryption algorithms are used. The AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) uses multiple 128, 160, 192, or 256 bit keys to encrypt a document. With the RSA encryption standard (named after its inventors Ronald Rivest, Adi Shamir, and Leonard Adleman) a key is created by choosing two large prime numbers and multiplying them together. RC4 is a standard that uses multiple keys as long as 2048 bits to encrypt a document.

Private Key Encryption

There are two kinds of key encryption: private key and public key. In private key encryption a single key is used that only the sender and the receiver know. Private key encryption is also called symmetric encryption because the same key is used to both encrypt and decrypt the document.

Public Key Encryption

The problem with private key encryption is that the sender must somehow share his key with the recipient. The key can be sent in a separate transmission than the document, but that can still be vulnerable to hackers.

Public key encryption uses two keys. One key, called the private key can only decrypt a document. The private key is known only to the intended receiver of the document. The private key is never shared with anyone or sent across the Internet.

The other key, called the public key, can only encrypt a document. Each organization's or person's public key is distributed to people you want to communicate with them. Public keys are often published so that a company's or person's public key can be obtained from a public key server, a publicly available host that provides a list of public keys.

The combination of the public key and the private key is called a key pair. To send a secure document, use the recipientís public key to encrypt the document. Only the intended recipientís private key can decrypt documents encrypted with their public key. Because public key encryption requires the use of two different keys, it is called asymmetric encryption.

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