What is .......... Encryption?

What is it?

Encryption means to scramble data in such a way that only someone with the secret code or key can read it.

Is it new?

encryptionEncryption has been around for thousands of years in various forms. For example, in Ancient Greece the story goes that a general wanted to send a secret message back to his city. So he had a soldier's head shaven and the message written on his scalp. Soon enough his hair grew back enough to hide the message and was sent off running to the city. When the soldier arrived, the city official knew the secret 'key' i.e. shave his head to reveal the message.



Why is it important?

Today, encryption is far more sophisticated, but it serves the same purpose - to pass a secret message from one place to another without anyone else being able to read it.

Encryption is extremely important for e-commerce as it allows confidential information such as your credit card details to be sent safely to the online shop you are visiting.

Web browsers are able to encrypt your purchase details using an encryption method called 'SSL' (Secure Socket Layer). You know this is switched on when a small padlock appears in the bottom right of the browser. SSL gets switched on when you visit a 'secure server' that has an address that starts with HTTPS:// (note the 'S').

How does it work?

Encryption works by scrambling the original message with a very large digital number (key). This is done using advanced mathematics. Commercial-level encryption uses 128 bit key that is very, very hard to crack. The computer receiving the message knows the digital key and so is able to work out the original message.

Why don't we use it all the time?

There are three problems.

a) It is slower than normal browsing. It takes a while for the browser to do the maths required to scramble the message and another delay on the server that has to unscramble the data.

b) Online shops have to have a digital certificate that contains part of the key. This is not free and has to be supplied by a 'certificate authority'.

c) It can be a complicated business running a secure server, so very often, ordinary online shops will hire a specialist 'Payment Gateway' such as WorldPay or Paypal to handle payments for them.

Any more about encryption?

Yes, it is appearing more and more in your home, as DRM (Digital Rights Management) is used to encrypt downloaded music or to copy-protect DVDs.

Challenge see if you can find out one extra fact on this topic that we haven't already told you

Click on this link: Encryption services



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