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Understanding Encryption

Understanding Encryption

Encryption is basically using a code to hide your data. Consider the following numbers:

8 5 12 12 15 (space) 23 15 18 12 5

If you can’t read it, try replacing the numbers with their corresponding letter, starting with A=1 (B=2, C=3, so on). The result is:

H E L L O (space) W O R L D

That simple, schoolyard-style code is - by definition - a type of encryption. Modern encryption protocols, like Signal and AES, are significantly more complicated but at the core the concept is the same: replacing easily understood data with substitutes that can only be understood with a “key”. In the example I gave earlier, the “key” is knowing that A=1, B=2, and so forth. In more advanced software encryption, the key takes the form of your password. The field of encryption is called “cryptography.” Please note, this is a tremendously oversimplified explanation.

Encryption is a central concept in cybersecurity, as well as privacy. Depending on how something is encrypted - if it is encrypted at all - your data can be exposed to a myriad of threats. For example, most computers - by default - are not “encrypted at rest.” This means that anyone can easily pop out the hard drive, plug it into their computer with a USB adapter, and browse your files, no login or password required. I have personally done this to my own devices - and those of family members (at their request) - numerous times for the purposes of data recovery. Under ideal circumstances this isn’t an issue since the files on your device tend to stay on your device - excluding cloud sync services like Google Drive or Dropbox. However, if your device ever gets stolen or confiscated, I cannot overstate how easily your content can be accessed by whoever possess it, even without knowing your login password.

The state of online traffic - that is, anything you send from one device to another - is only slightly better since most internet traffic is “encrypted in transit” - meaning it is encrypted when it leaves your device and travels across the internet. However, most of that data is decrypted (and often stored) once it reaches the provider’s server, meaning content is easily visible to anyone who has access to that server for any reason - and not just physical access, either. That means any attacker who gains access to the server can also gain access to your content. This can include not just DMs, but “private” content like a locked social media page, unlisted YouTube videos, invite-only Discord servers, and files stored in the cloud.

For maximum privacy and security, it is imperative to use a specific type of encryption called “End-to-End Encryption” (also known as “e2ee,” “zero-knowledge encryption”, or “zero-access encryption”). This means that data is encrypted in-transit from sender to reciever - not decrypted at the provider’s servers. Only the sender and recipient can read the data, nobody else in between can - not even the provider.

Not all services are able to function with end-to-end encryption. For example, a “zero-knowledge social media platform” makes no sense since the very foundation of social media is that your posts are meant to be broadly visible to the audience you desire. However, direct communcations - such as DMs, email, and cloud storage - can and should be zero-knowledge, even if only at-rest (as in the case of most encrypted email providers).

Encryption can and should be used in any situation where it is possible and available. This includes - but is not limited to - communications, file storage, device encryption, and more. As we continue through this section, remember that: when dealing with devices, demand encryption. When dealing with online services, demand end-to-end or zero-knowledge encryption specifically.

Don’t Lose Your Password!

Perhaps the biggest drawback of end-to-end encryption is that - if done correctly - the provider has no access to your encryption keys. Put simply, the provider cannot reset your email without permanently encrypting all of your data. I have personally had (or secondhand seen others have) this experience with services like ProtonMail, Bitwarden, and cloud storage. In some cases, there are workarounds or recommended recovery solutions, however these are often user-unfriendly or come with caveats the user should be aware of. The simplest solution is to never lose your password. For more information on how to safely store passwords, see this page. I also recommend taking advantage of most or all recovery methods (as long as you have researched the risks and they fit your threat model. These often include things like a backup code, recovery contacts (such as a secondary email address or other users who can verify you), a file you can download, or something similar.

Tips & Tricks

  • Don’t be swayed by jargon like “military grade encryption.” This is a meaningless marketing term that has no value or information in it. Check the privacy policy to see what data the service can really access.

  • Remember metadata. Even if the content itself is safely encrypted, the metadata may be just as revealing. Check the privacy policy to see what data isn’t encrypted. Contact the service with questions if you’re unsure.

  • Be wary of terms like “warant-proof encryption” or other similar terms. This may indicate a “bulletproof” provider - that is, a provider who ignores law enforcement requests. While this may seem like a good thing at first, these services often attract and cater specifically to criminals, meaning it’s only a matter of time before they get shut down by law enforcement and your data ends up in an evidence locker.