Encryption > What is Encryption

What is Encryption?

Encryption is the process of scrambling or enciphering data so it can be read only by someone with the means to return it to its original state. It is a crucial feature of a safe and trustworthy Internet. It helps provide data security for sensitive information. 

Encryption is commonly used to protect data stored on computer systems and data transmitted via computer networks, including the Internet. Financial transactions and private messaging communications often use encryption to increase security. Encryption is important when we need to find out whether data has been tampered with (data integrity), to increase people’s confidence that they are communicating with the people they think are communicating with (authentication) and to be sure that messages were sent and received (non-repudiation).

How does encryption work?

For data communicated over a network, modern encryption scrambles data using a secret value or key known only by the recipient and the sender. For stored data, the secret value is typically known only by the data owner. There are different types of encryption and the best systems balance safety and efficiency.

End-to-end encryption is any form of encryption in which only the sender and intended recipient can read the message. No third party, even the party providing the communication service, has knowledge of the encryption key. End-to-end encryption is the most secure form of encryption that you can use.

To find out more about how encryption works, take a look at our visual explainer or read our encryption factsheet.

To learn more, sign up for the Internet Society Encryption training course, available in English, French and Spanish.

When do I use encryption?

Here are just a few of the places where you likely use encryption in your everyday life:

Web browsing

Browsers and websites use HTTPS, an encrypted protocol, to provide secure communications, keeping our data from being read by bad actors while in transit.

E-commerce

We trust companies to protect our financial information when we buy things online or use online banking. Encryption is an important method of doing that.

Secure messaging

When we use a messaging app, we expect the messages to be private. Some messaging apps use encryption to maintain the privacy and security of their users’ communications while it is in transit. Others even use end-to-end encryption, so only the sender and receiver can read the messages.

Why encryption matters

Encryption safeguards the personal security of billions of people and the national security of countries around the world. Here’s why encryption is vital:

Personal security

Encryption is more important than ever as Internet-based crime is one of the fastest growing security threats. End-to-end encryption, the most secure form of encryption, ensures that sensitive, confidential information transmitted by billions of people online every day remains confidential and out of the hands of criminals.

National security

End-to-end encryption helps prevent spies, terrorists, and hostile governments from accessing and exploiting confidential communications of government officials, and penetrating computer systems and databases that could cause wide-scale, systemic disruptions to economies, infrastructure, and security. 

End-to-end encryption also protects the private, confidential communications of law enforcement, military personnel, government officials overseeing classified operations, and emergency responders. 

Encryption also protects highly sensitive systems intrinsically tied to national security, including systems that power the electrical grid, databases containing confidential data on citizens, and databases of financial institutions critical to the economic stability of sovereign nations.

Threats to encryption

Encryption is a system. If part of the system is weakened, so is the system as a whole. Some people want to weaken encryption. Here’s why that’s a bad idea: 

What are the consequences of weakened encryption?

Efforts to weaken encryption in one place weaken it everywhere, for everyone. Weakened encryption threatens the security, stability, and safety of people and nations everywhere. Here’s why:

The most effective way to ensure the personal security of billions of people and the security of nations around the world is to not only continue preserving uncompromised, end-to-end encryption practices, but also by adopting and bolstering strong encryption policies.

What would your life look like without encryption?

What do you want to keep private in your life? From your finances to your photos, there are countless areas of your life you likely want to keep safe and secure. Without encryption, private messages, financial data, photos and videos – and so much more – would be at risk. Criminals could easily access your financial information, impersonate you online, or blackmail you using your personal data. A world with encryption is a safer world. From when you wake up in the morning to when you go to bed at night, encryption helps protect what matters.

Who needs to use encryption?

Encryption is for everybody. If you want to keep your data private and secure, encryption is important for you. Let’s take a look at some of the specific groups for whom encryption is particularly important. 

Encryption for Journalists

For some communities, like journalists, encryption is crucial for keeping people safe and ensuring a healthy freedom of the press. Encryption is essential for protecting freedom of expression and privacy. 

Read our factsheet on How Encryption can Protect Journalists and the Free Press.

Encryption for LGBTQ+ people

A safe, secure Internet helps the LGBTQ+ community live their truth without fear of persecution while protecting their privacy. Strong encryption is a critical part of that equation.

Read our factsheet on Why Encryption is Essential for the LGBTQ+ Community.

Encryption for Young People

Heading to a protest or just worried about snooping siblings? Here are the three essential steps young people need for encryption safety. 

Read our factsheet for Youth by Youth: 3 Ways to ACT.

If you’re a parent or carer, find out why encryption is an important part of keeping children safe online.