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What is Encryption?

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Every once in awhile you'll read something about computer data that's sent over the Internet being "encrypted," which is a good thing, we assume. But what exactly does that mean, and more importantly, what in the world does encryption do?

Well, to start with, encrypting data is very important because it can help prevent information—sent over the Internet through email or transactions— about you, your personal matters and your finances from being read and exploited by someone who was never intended to see it. And who is that "someone"? A person or group who wants to steal that information and take advantage of it...or you. You want to prevent your banking information from Internet thieves who want to empty your bank accounts. Government agencies don't want their plans and secrets in the hands of enemy spies. And businesses don't want competitors or thieves stealing their business secrets or disrupting their businesses.

Make no mistake about it—there are always bad guys (in alleys and dark corners of the Internet) waiting to disrupt everyday activities, like banking and email, to screw things up.

That's where encryption comes in.

Serious Gibberish

Here's what encryption does. It scrambles the data in a way that turns it into gibberish before it's sent out over the Internet. The receiving party has the key to unscrambling it and restoring it to valid information. Is encrypting the same as encoding? Not quite. Encoding is transforming data in order to transmit it or to meet some necessary standard for usage—with encoding, usability, not confidentially, is the goal.

Encrypting data means manipulating in a way so that if it's intercepted, it's virtually worthless without the code/key that would revert it to its original format. In theory, only the intended recipient of the encrypted data has the electronic key to unlock it.

Here's an example of actual encrypted text; in other words, this is an actual paragraph that makes sense... if you were given the password/key to decrypt it. In this case, the person who encrypted the data would provide you they key to decoding the text message:

8WAtp8nUEOrzSu67t9tGITEzIdgr6huIpXqofo0rv2w9y3DzSu67t9tGITEzIdgr6huIpXqoTzA
RKuumMLuyHlGrWvGXy8acawjyliExMCHCfRU9VzlAipW4HFMVN3XZixDAw4EcmBHnnJozJYoPgh
eWYx3P1S11TEADaLlKVO5bXyBhEPQu6Z4jdUAdnHUkRuKBuHoCcU0hMTIhTzyYriExMCEI84A=

As you can imagine, encryption is a whole lot more complicated than that, and it can involve complex mathematical formulas to encrypt and decrypt data.

Encrypted websites

Do you have to encrypt your own data? Fortunately for you, no! Banks and retailers doing business on the Internet have to gain your trust; otherwise, neither you nor any else would do any important transactions on the Internet. Consider how many financial transactions (stock trading, investing, etc.) are done electronically and you'll realize how vital encryption is. So, for your data's safety, and to protect their own interests as well (they have a lot to lose, too!), virtually all important electronic/Internet transactions are encrypted—even your emails.

"S" for Safety

There's a simple way to be sure the website you're using is encrypting any data you send or receive. Just look in the address bar where the website's shows up. The website is secure if you see the "padlock" icon in the address bar and/or "https://" in the very first part of the website's address. That "s" actually stands for secure. If it says only "http" the site isn't secure and you should think twice about sending personal information out.

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