In a hyper-digitalized world, protecting sensitive information has never been more important. It has also never been more challenging. Adversaries and weak security protocols are everywhere, resulting in information leaks for organizations and ordinary people.

This article will explain the importance of data encryption for protecting sensitive information. It will also cover some real-world scenarios where it could have prevented a data breach.

## What is data encryption?

Data encryption is converting plaintext (readable data) into unreadable or ciphertext using a mathematical algorithm called a cipher. The cipher uses a key, which is a series of numbers or a password, to encrypt the data. The encrypted data can only be decrypted and made readable again by someone with the correct key. This helps protect sensitive data from unauthorized access or tampering.

Data encryption ensures that only authorized individuals or systems can access sensitive information. Threat actors could intercept sensitive data like financial information, personal identification numbers, and confidential business information without encryption. Such information leaks can lead to financial loss, identity theft, and reputational damage.

## Types of encryption algorithms

### Symmetric key algorithms

Symmetric algorithms use the same key for encryption and decryption. This keeps the encryption process simple and easy to manage, making it well-suited for encrypting large amounts of data.

Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) is the most used symmetric key algorithm. It’s considered very secure and can use key sizes of 128, 192, or 256 bits. It protects various sensitive systems and applications, including disks, networks, and software.

The main weakness of symmetric encryption is that an attacker only needs one key to access the data. If they get the key, they could read any encrypted data and alter or tamper with it.

### Asymmetric key algorithms

Asymmetric key algorithms are encryption algorithms that use a pair of keys, one for encryption and one for decryption. These keys are mathematically related, but it is computationally infeasible to determine one key based on the other. One key is kept secret (the private key), and the other is shared with others (the public key).

Asymmetric key algorithms offer many advantages over symmetric key algorithms. The main advantage is the ability to securely exchange keys over a public communication channel and verify the authenticity of digital signatures. But, they are generally slower and more computationally intensive than symmetric key algorithms.

### Hash functions

Hash functions are encryption algorithms that convert a variable plaintext into an output with a fixed number of characters, called a hash. The same input will always produce the same output, but even a small change will have a different outcome. Hash functions exist in many applications. They are famous for password storage, data integrity checking, and file comparison.

One of the main weaknesses of hash functions is that they can be subject to collisions. A collision occurs when two different inputs produce the same hash value. A well-designed hash function is unlikely to produce collisions, but it is possible.

Another weakness is that some hash functions are vulnerable to preimage attacks. A preimage attack is when an attacker can find an input that will produce a specific hash value.

## Data encryption could have prevented this:

### The Equifax data breach

Equifax is one of the world’s largest credit rating agencies. In 2017, it experienced a data breach exposing 150 million consumer records. The company didn't fix a known vulnerability in Apache Struts, allowing attackers to go undetected in the network for over two months.

There, they encountered an unencrypted file containing many passwords. The passwords gave them access to around 50 different databases containing consumer credit data, which was also unencrypted. This is a great example of why encrypting sensitive data is necessary for today’s threat environment. A secure, zero-knowledge encrypted cloud storage is a good option for storing sensitive data.

### Unencrypted USB at Heathrow Airport

London Heathrow Airport was using non-encrypted USB drives for its non-cloud storage. A USB drive with 76 folders and 174 documents was stolen in 2017. The files included info on the type of ID needed to access restricted airport areas. It even had details on measures to protect the Queen.

The airport was fined \$120 thousand for its data protection failings. Using an encrypted USB was all it took to prevent this data leak. On a positive note, this incident resulted in positive change, as the airport took swift action to improve security protocols and policies.

## Conclusion

Protecting sensitive business and personal data has never been more imperative. Adversaries are always looking for ways to get your information. One thing that makes their job much harder is encryption. Encrypted files are difficult to break because they use mathematical algorithms to scramble the data in the file. This makes them unreadable to anyone without the proper decryption key.