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In cryptography, an encryption key is a string of characters used with an algorithm to transform plaintext (unencrypted data) into ciphertext (encrypted data) and vice versa for decryption algorithms. It alters the data in a way it appears random and “locks” it so that only the corresponding key can decrypt it. Keys can also specify transformations in other algorithms, such as digital signature schemes and message authentication codes. An encryption key can also be, referred to as a key.

A key is used to encrypt, decrypt, or carry out both functions based on the encryption software that's being used. The longer a key is, the harder it is to crack the encryption code. Eighty bits are considered the minimum key length for sufficient cyber security;128-bit keys are the most common key length and are considered very strong.

In the past, ciphertext was developed by replacing one letter with another character in plaintext, and keys consisted of a random string of numbers. Now, ciphertext uses complex mathematical formulas (algorithms), and keys are more randomized to scramble text beyond human recognition. To prevent a key from being guessed, it needs to be randomized and contain sufficient entropy.

Symmetric key encryption uses the same algorithm-based key that is stored on multiple devices that allows businesses to transmit and receive encrypted information instantly. This requires that the key be shared ahead of time between the sender and the receiver for the connection to be functional and secure. One drawback of symmetric key encryption is that if a hacker can gain access to a company’s network and shared key, they can decrypt any encrypted data and even construct encrypted data packets that would be impossible to detect as being malicious.

Using symmetric encryption algorithms gives business leaders the ability to convert data into a form that cannot be seen by anyone who does not possess the secret key to decrypt it. The encrypted key that both parties use could be a specific password or just a random string of letters or numbers generated by a secure random number generator (RNG).

Public key encryption allows each person in a conversation to create a public key and a private key. The two keys are connected and consist of large numbers with complex mathematical properties. This makes it so that data that one person encrypted using their public key can only be decoded by another when using their matching private key.

To put public key encryption into perspective, imagine your business wanted to send a client some extremely-sensitive data over your public cloud without having it fall under the gaze of unauthorized individuals. To give your clients access to sensitive data, you would send them a copy of your public key for them to decrypt the data.

Of course, there are some security loopholes here if your company’s communication channels were to be compromised, whomsoever got their hands on a public key could view that sensitive data. This is why it is crucial to ensure that all public key copies are stored offline in a secure location if they are to be used again by the client. If they no longer need the key, then it should be deleted to keep the data from being leaked by a hacker.

Encryption can protect your most sensitive data and secure your network connections. For the last decade, many encryption options have been made obsolete due to the continuous innovations of networks and hackers alike. Here are a couple of encryption methods you should know about that may be perfect for your cloud computing cybersecurity needs.

One of the most secure symmetric encryption algorithms available is the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES). This method uses a block cipher that encrypts data one fixed-size block at a time. This helps streamline the data encryption process better than other methods that encrypt data bit by bit.

Advanced Encryption Standard is comprised of AES-128, AES-192, and AES-256. Since the size of each block is measured in bits, that means that AES-128 will operate on 128 bits of plaintext to produce 128 bits of ciphertext. This means that the key bit you choose encrypts and decrypts blocks in 128 bits, 192 bits, and so on.

Since AES is symmetric key encryption, you must share the key with other individuals for them to access the encrypted data. The longer the key, the stronger the encryption (256 is the strongest). In terms of performance, shorter keys make for exponentially faster encryption than longer keys. Overall, AES is much more suitable for encrypting the actual data than public-key encryptions because the keys require fewer resources and are much faster than public-key ciphers.

If ease of decryption of your data isn’t the main priority of your business, you might be more inclined to implement Rivest-Shamir-Adleman (RSA) encryption. Rivest-Shamir-Adleman is one of the world's most secure and advanced encryption techniques, supporting encryption key lengths up to 4096 bits.

RSA functions by having two separate encryption keys, with the first encrypting the public information and the other key decrypting the private data. Rivest-Shamir-Adleman encryption keys are so incredibly developed that they, can be used to encrypt keys for other algorithms. One thing to note for RSA is that despite it being an incredibly ironclad encryption solution, it can still be compromised if the private key is exposed.

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