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What Is Encryption? A Brief Overview

You’ve heard the term encryption, and probably know your cryptocurrencies are encrypted. But what does encryption mean exactly? We discuss the various types of modern encryption methods and how encryption is a key component of blockchain protocols.

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Summary

Encryption refers to technical processes of converting plaintext into ciphertext and back again that secure data and systems, making it difficult for unauthorized parties to gain access to encrypted information. This process generally falls into two categories: symmetric or asymmetric encryption. Symmetric key systems use the same key for encrypting and decrypting data and asymmetric systems use public and private key pairs for encrypting and decrypting data.

Encryption refers to technical processes that secure data and systems, making it difficult for hackers to gain unauthorized access to information or to meddle with networks and transactions. In modern cryptography, encryption generally entails the conversion of readable plaintext into ciphertext (encrypted data that is unreadable) with the use of an encryption algorithm or cipher. Only those who are authorized to access the data are able to decode the ciphertext back into readable plaintext.

Plaintext and Ciphertext 

Plaintext refers to any information, such as text on websites, programs, or music files, that can be easily read or deciphered by humans or machines. Sensitive information such as account passwords, which might be visible — and ripe for stealing — in plaintext if processed over the internet needs an added layer of security to remain confidential. This is where encryption comes in.

Encryption converts plaintext into ciphertext, or encrypted data that is unreadable, with the use of an encryption algorithm or cipher. Only authorized users can access the data and are able to decode the ciphertext back into readable plaintext.

Encryption Algorithms and Keys 

This process of encryption and decryption, from plaintext to ciphertext and back to plaintext, generally involves the use of encryption algorithms and keys. Encryption algorithms are mathematical formulae that can scramble plaintext (the input) into cipher text (the output). The key, generated by the algorithm, works to transform the resulting ciphertext back to its original readable form (and vice versa). The security of any system relies on a strong encryption algorithm that can’t be easily hacked, as well as keeping the key hidden from potential intruders. A key is a string of data or bits  – or more simply, a string of numbers or letters – that is inputted into the encryption algorithm. Keys are generally randomly generated, and unlike a password, are not intended to be memorized by a user to input.

Modern cryptographic systems generally use symmetric and asymmetric encryption (also known as public-key cryptography). In symmetric key systems, the same key is used for encrypting and decrypting data. In asymmetric or public key systems, the encryption key is publicly available, but only the authorized holder of the private decryption key can gain access to the decoded plaintext.  

Asymmetric Encryption and Cryptocurrencies 

Cryptocurrencies stay secure by relying on modern asymmetric encryption methods and the secure nature of transactions on a blockchain. Cryptocurrency holders use private keys to verify that they are owners of their cryptocurrency. Transactions are secured with hashing and blockchain encryption techniques.

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