Encrypting data is a good way to protect sensitive information. It
ensures that the data can only be read by the person who is authorized
to have access to it.
What is encryption?
In very basic terms, encryption is a way to send a message in code.
The only person who can decode the message is the person with the
correct key; to anyone else, the message looks like a random series of
letters, numbers, and characters.
Encryption is especially important if you are trying to send sensitive
information that other people should not be able to access. Because
email messages are sent over the internet and might be intercepted by
an attacker, it is important to add an additional layer of security to
How is it different from digital signatures?
Like digital signatures, public-key encryption utilizes software such
as PGP, converts information with mathematical algorithms, and relies
on public and private keys, but there are differences:
- The purpose of encryption is confidentiality - concealing the
content of the message by translating it into a code. The purpose
of digital signatures is integrity and authenticity - verifying the
sender of a message and indicating that the content has not been
changed. Although encryption and digital signatures can be used
independently, you can also sign an encrypted message.
- When you sign a message, you use your private key, and anybody who
has your public key can verify that the signature is valid (see
Understanding Digital Signatures for more information). When you
encrypt a message, you use the public key for the person you're
sending it to, and his or her private key is used to decrypt the
message. Because people should keep their private keys
confidential and should protect them with passwords, the intended
recipient should be the only one who is able to view the
How does encryption work?
- Obtain the public key for the person you want to be able to read
the information. If you get the key from a public key ring,
contact the person directly to confirm that the series of letters
and numbers associated with the key is the correct fingerprint.
- Encrypt the email message using their public key. Most email
clients have a feature to easily perform this task.
- When the person receives the message, he or she will be able to
Author: Mindi McDowell
The above article is reproduced with the kind permission of US-CERT (United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team) and the original document may be viewed by clicking here