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What Is Encryption And How Does It Work?

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We live in a world where computers and the internet are nearly everywhere. With that comes the fact that individuals and companies are facing a rapidly increasing online threat: cybercrime.

The market is bigger than ever before, making the internet the new (and profitable) frontier for (cyber) criminals. That means that protecting our digital presence is of utmost importance, and encryption is an important security measure.

For example, email software, online banking, webshops, hotel websites and news websites are just a few examples of the vast quantity of platforms that use encryption to protect data.

The method of protecting information by encrypting it isn’t a recent solution. The Greeks and Egyptians used cryptography thousands of years ago to protect important messages from unwanted eyes.

That being said, the techniques and methods are very different and more advanced in today’s digital world in order to protect and secure our data.

Encryption is used to make sure that important data can’t be stolen or abused for fraudulent activities by hackers.

Before we delve into how encryption works, let’s start by first looking at the history of encryption.

History of Encryption

Before most people could even write or read, encryption schemes had already been developed to convert messages and information into an unreadable piece of text.

The word encryption comes from “kryptos.” The Greeks used “krypto” to describe something that was hidden or secret.

The first documented examples of written cryptography date back to 1900 B.C., when Egyptians used simple encryption methods, such as non-standard hieroglyphs, in inscriptions.

In 700 B.C., the Spartans wrote important messages on leather, which was wrapped around sticks. A message could only be read by someone who had a stick of the exact same diameter. Without knowing the exact diameter size, a person wouldn’t be able to decipher (convert code into written text) the message.

Later, Hebrew scribes developed an encryption model called “ATBASH.” This type of encryption used a reversed-alphabet simple substitution code. That means that an “A” becomes a “Z,” “B” becomes a “Y,” etc.

For example, “Hello” would be encoded as “Svool.”

In the time of Julius Caesar (100-44 B.C.), the Romans used a similar substitution. Instead of reversing the alphabet, the Romans used a pre-agreed shift of the letters – only the person who knew about the agreed shift of letters could decipher the message.

For example, if the agreed shift was 5, then the sentence “This is super interesting!” would be encrypted into “YMNX NX XZUJW NSYJWJXYNSL!”

Throughout the Middle Ages, there was a rapid development of encryption models using polyalphabetic substitution (multiple substitution alphabets used to minimize the success of decryption).

Then, another major development in encryption took place around 1933 to 1945, when German cryptologists created the world-famous Enigma machine.

Up to this period, all encryption models were designed using a symmetric key – I’ll explain this later in the article.

In 1976, IBM created an encryption model that was later decided to be the U.S. Data Encryption Standard (DES). It had achieved worldwide acceptance largely because it had withstood 20 years of attacks. It was later replaced by AES encryption, which will be discussed later.

In the same year, Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman published “New Directions in Cryptography.” They laid the groundwork to solve one of the core fundamental issues (at the time) of encryption schemes: how to distribute the encryption key to the intended person(s) in a safe and secure way.

New Directions in Cryptography was considered a breakthrough and triggered an era of new cryptography schemes, using a public key with asymmetric algorithms and new authentication methods – which I will explain in-depth in the asymmetric section of “Types of Key Algorithms.”

What Is Encryption, Exactly?

Encryption is a modern variant of ancient cryptography schemes. It’s based on a complex algorithm called a “cipher.”

Its purpose is to hide important information from others by turning plaintext data into a series of random ciphertext, which makes it impossible to read the plaintext without decoding the data with a special decryption key.

In cryptography, plaintext (unencrypted information) is the data that presents itself in readable material, e.g., that email you wrote to your boss.

The opposite of plaintext is called ciphertext. Ciphertext (encrypted information) is that data that contains a form of the original and encrypted plaintext, but it’s unreadable for humans and computers.

Simply put, encryption is the process of converting sensitive data or information into unintelligible data.

Encryption keys are designed to be absolutely one-of-a-kind, using a set of different algorithms. The encryption key is used to encode or decode data.

That basically means that an encryption key is able to mix up the data into unreadable characters, and it can revert those unreadable characters back into plaintext as well.

For example, when I encrypt a set of data and create a unique key to lock my data, I can share the encrypted data with my friends or colleagues. In order to view the data, all they need is the encryption key that I have.

One unique key used to both encrypt and decrypt data only applies to symmetric encryption, while asymmetric encryption works differently, which I’ll discuss later.

general encryption illustration

By providing them with the key, they’re allowed access to the data. Another term for this process is “public-key cryptography.”

Machine cryptography – or rotor machine – became known to the majority of the public during WWII, when the Germans used the Enigma code (machine) to encrypt all of their communications.

Machine cryptography consists of an electro-mechanical system which is used to encrypt and decrypt secret information.


The Germans encrypted all of their communication channels, from attack coordination and strategy planning to reporting. It became one of Great Britain’s most important and secret tasks to decrypt the Enigma machine in order to know what the Germans were planning to do.

British mathematician Alan Turing set out – amongst others in a group of Britain’s greatest mathematicians – to decrypt the Enigma code, in a then-secret location at Bletchley Park in England.

At Bletchley Park, Alan Turing and Gordon Welchman managed to build the code-breaking machine dubbed “Colossus.”

Colossus became the first programmable digital computer that could generate unique and strong encryption and decryption keys, which was a massive turning point in both WWII and the development of encryption and decryption.


What Is the Encryption Algorithm Used For?

As shown in the history section, encryption schemes were used by important people in wartime or for political reasons.

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What Is Encryption and How Does It Work?

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