About Encryption

May 21, 2010

Bare with me on this. Don’t skip this article because you think it’s too technical. The end of the article has some fun stuff.

Encryption is taking information and transforming it using a key into something else to make it unreadable to anyone except those who know the key. The key is usually a password of some sort. There are different algorithms that can be used to encrypt data. Some are easier to break than others.

Here’s an example of a very simply form of encryption. This is called Shift Encryption. Basically, each letter is changed into the next letter in the alphabet. An ‘a’ becomes a ‘b’.  A ‘b’ becomes a ‘c’ and so forth. ‘z’ becomes ‘a’. Spaces are replaced with ‘!’.

Let’s say you have the following sentence:

The password is rosebud

If you encrypted it using a shift algorithm as described above, you would get the following:

Uif!qbttxpse!jt!sptfcve

If you saw the above written on a piece of paper, you wouldn’t be able to read it. If you knew it was a secret message, you could study it and eventually figure out what it says.

This is a very simple example of encryption. Notice there was no key involved; Just a simple algorithm. Another simple form of encryption you are probably already familiar with is Pig Latin. The encryption that is used on a computer is much more sophisticated and too difficult to try and explain here.

Like any kind of security, encryption is a deterrent. No security is totally impenetrable, but the harder you make it for the criminal, the more likely they are to give up.

You may not realize it, but you use encryption any time you access a secure website. You are using a secure website any time you use a website where you have to login, like a banking website. When you make a purchase online, the checkout process is on a secure website in order to protect your personal information and your credit card number.

If you use remote backup, you use encryption as well. Your data is encrypted before it leaves your computer. The remote backup service you use doesn’t know your key and can’t access your data because your data is stored encrypted on their servers. This is good for security, but if your computer gets destroyed, you better know what the key is or you won’t be able to decrypt your data either.

Something else that uses encryption is your security software. When your security software quarantines an infection, it encrypts it and stores it in a special place. As long as it’s encrypted, it can’t run.

If your computer contains highly sensitive information, you might want to encrypt your whole hard drive. You can purchase software that will do this, however, you should only do this if it’s absolutely necessary because there are drawbacks to doing this. One drawback is that if your hard drive crashes, it can’t be recovered by traditional means because it’s encrypted. It also slows down your computer because every time  you read or write information on the hard drive, your computer has to encrypt or decrypt the information.

It is also possible to encrypt email, but like encrypting your hard drive, it should only be done if security conditions warrant.  For most people, this is not needed.

There is a fun aspect to all of this. Many people enjoyed Pig Latin as a kid. Something that is fun to do on a computer is use a dialectizer. A dialectizer takes text and changes in a humorous way. For example, there is a website you can go to where you can type in or copy text into a box, hit a button, and it will change it to sound like it would if the Swedish Chef (one of the Muppets) said it.

For example, if you took the sentence:

I like to use my computer.

And translated it using the Swedish Chef Dialectizer, you would get:

I leeke-a tu use-a my cumpooter. Bork Bork Bork!

There are quite a few dialectizers out there. Some of them may be offensive to some people. Some use foul language and some border on racist. Some examples of dialectizers that are available include Valley Girl, Jive, Redneck, Cockney, Elmer Fudd, Moron, Hacker, 12 year old AOLer, and many, many more.

Here are a couple of links to websites that will let you play with some of the dialectizers.

http://userweb.cs.utexas.edu/users/jbc/home/chef.html

http://www.rinkworks.com/dialect/

Have fun!

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