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The ABCs of Encryption

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One of the benefits of a virtual private network (VPN), experts will tell you, is that any messages or data transmitted through a VPN are encrypted, which makes it all secure and unreadable. On a larger scale, all bank and credit card websites use encryption for transmitting their customers' data.

But just what does encryption really mean, and how and why does it work? Here's a simple overview.

How encryption works.

Encryption has likely been around as long as the written word. That's because human beings (military officials, for example) don't want their "enemies" to read their wartime secrets. During wartime, opposing armies have made it a point to scramble their messages in such a way that only someone with a "key" could translate them. Not a physical key that unlocks a strongbox with secret correspondence, but a method of decoding a message and turning a bunch of mixed-up letters and gibberish back into their original words and meaning.

Today, computer software and sophisticated formulas can code/encrypt messages in a way that makes them impossible to crack.

What is encryption used for today?

Financial institutions and retail websites encrypt the data that flows between their customers and their websites. That encryption ensures that even if customer data were to fall into the hands of hackers, they would not be able to extract customer names and account information.

If you bank online or pay utility bills online, you'll see a lock icon (graphic) in that website's address bar: That tells you your connection and transaction are encrypted and protected.

Do-it-yourself encryption.

Maybe you would like to make everything you do online unreadable to online snoops. Well, you can. You can download an app or install software that encrypts data as you send it. You can encrypt texts, browsing sessions and phone calls.

Apple has started encrypting data for customers using the latest operating system for their iPhones (iOS8). If a hacker managed to intercept a data transmission, all he would see is unreadable, untranslatable characters.

Is your email encrypted?

You'd hope so, but it's not...at least not yet. The big high-tech companies are said to be working on projects that will encrypt their customers' emails, but the projects are slow out of the starting blocks. If you're adventurous, you can explore getting software that will encrypt all of your outgoing email. Only problem? You need to make sure your email recipients have the same software loaded and have their program set to receive your message. (So it just might be better to wait for Google and Yahoo to roll out their encryption solutions.)

Is encryption 100% foolproof?

For the most part, you're likely in very good hands whenever you're on encrypted websites. But if a hacker group were to break the encryption code, then all the encrypted data is at risk of being decoded. According to past business history, it does happen. In 2007, the company that owns TJ Maxx, Home Goods and Marshalls reportedly had a data intrusion when hackers stole a point-of-sale card reader system, used it to get access to customer account data and—most importantly—were able to break the code the company used to encrypt data.

The hackers stole data and put tens of millions of customers at risk of theft, as well as exposed to credit card and identity fraud.

Why isn't everything on the Web encrypted?

Size matters. It's difficult for large companies to decide what data to encrypt and to put technology systems in place to handle it all. Not only that, but an IT management team has to decide which employees are given access to the encryption keys as well as figure out how to manage the entire encryption process. None of that is simple.

For those reasons, many companies are slow at addressing company-wide encryption, don't manage the process efficiently if they do have it, or simply choose to rely on the security processes they have in place to keep hackers at bay.

But as many companies have found out, keeping your fingers crossed and hoping for the best is not a solid corporate-security strategy.

One day, everything will be encrypted.

Most people know they should be doing more to protect their privacy online, and encryption should be part of that solution. A Pew Research Survey conducted in January 2014 revealed that 60% of adults "would like to do more" to protect themselves online.

But large businesses have more to risk and are bigger targets for hackers. One business-to-business high-tech service provider is announcing the "World's First Enterprise Privacy Platform." It touts 100% privacy on all communication devices. That same company offers a business cell phone that provides complete and total text, email, video and photo privacy...as long as everyone you text and call is using the same brand of phone.

One day, maybe that will be the standard for everyone.

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