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What is Base64 encoding?

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For those who don’t work in IT, coding terminology can feel a bit overwhelming. However, gaining some basic knowledge about encoding and online security measures is easier than you might think.  

One such term is Base64 coding. It may sound like a phrase used in science fiction films, but it’s actually an essential part of the privacy of transmitted data. Let’s take a look at what Base64 encoding is, and why it’s a vital part of secure email and data transmission processes. 

Is computer encoding necessary?

To understand Base64 and other data encoding, we need to know what encoding computer data entails. Data encoding is the process of formatting data into transmittable information for information system processing services. Typically this is done by transforming data into symbols, numbers, and letters to make it readable for computer operating systems.

Encoding also allows the execution of computer applications, programs, and data processing. Essentially, encoding allows the conversion of your data files for storage and keeps computers user-friendly. Without any encoding processes at all, your computer would not be able to convert your written documents, images, music, or any other files to store.

We use encoding in everyday life, too. For example, if you see a movie trailer that gets you excited, your brain might encode this as a message to your loved ones. “We should go see Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3 tonight!” Your brain has taken the data from the movie trailer and encoded it to make it easier to communicate. 

What is Base64 encoding?

Base64 encoding is the foundation of privacy-enhanced email (PEM). PEM is the standard security protocol for most email services. Privacy Enhanced email encrypts data and secures communication sent via email  

PEM can be broken down into the following steps:

Conversion

Your written email is converted into a universal, standard format that any operating system can interpret.

Digital Signature

This verifies the original sender of an email and the integrity of the original email. In other words, the digital signature shows a receiving computer server that your sent email hasn’t been changed in the sending process.

Encryption

The message and its signature are both encrypted before your email is sent. Encryption protects the security of the email.

Base64 Encoding

Finally, Base64 encoding allows binary code to translate into readable characters. This important step of PEM keeps your email from looking like this “Wh23#* fS675” when opened.

Base64 is the encoding process that ensures PEM works. Basically, Base64 takes the data and binary info of an operating system and converts it into readable and printable language. For example, English, widely used punctuation, symbols, and numbers on a computer screen are the result of Base64.      

Some of the computer data available to view thanks to Base64 encoding includes:

  • Images
  • Videos 
  • Email content

How does Base64 encoding work? 

Base64 encoding works in ways that may seem very technical but can be broken down into easy-to-understand terms. It’s a step-by-step process that literally converts code into language. The steps of Base64 encoding are:

The Binary Breakdown

Base64 takes lengthy lines of binary code and breaks them into 6-bit segments. It sticks to basic ASCII characters (i.e., letters, numbers, symbols) to ensure readability. 

Base64 includes 10 digits, 26 lowercase letters, 26 uppercase letters, the “/” sign and the “+” sign as conversion characters for binary code. So, the encoding uses 64 characters in total – hence the name Base64.  

Conversion

Base64’s conversion from binary to ASCII characters utilizes math to quickly translate long streams of code into easily translated segments. Binary streams are an ordered series of 1’s and 0’s. Base 64 separates these strands. For example, Base64 would separate the binary numbers 101001100011010101001110 to read: 101001 100011 010101 001110.

Each binary number has a base of 2, and each 6 bits have a decimal base of 10. Thus, each 0 has a value of 2, and each 1 is worth 2 plus the incremental value of 1 (i.e., 2+1, 2+2, etc.). 

Base64 Encoding Table

The new post-conversion numbered values are then entered into the Base64 encoding table, where they are decoded into ASCII characters. For example, if the conversion from binary to decimal leaves you with 38, 1, 41, and 53, the encoding table converts these numbers to “map3.” 

Each line of code under 76 characters in length, which enables the Base64 conversion to be read easily and ensures the accuracy of the message sent. The = symbol is used as a “padded” sign at the end of each line of data.  

What is the benefit of Base64? 

Base64 is vital to transmitting large amounts of data as smaller bites and ensures quick conversion and decoding. For example, Base64 allows sending emails instantaneously without changing the integrity of the email’s content. Without PEM and Base64, emails might take as long as “snail mail” to send and prove just as unreliable.

Base64 is also used in Open SLL, Kubernetes secrets, and a multitude of computer applications.

What is ASCII?

ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange), pronounced “as-key,”  is the encoding standard for transmitted data that represents text. ASCII assigns characters to the binary code it receives or from the encoding of Base64. The standard has been in place since 1963 and is still used today.

Other Base64 terms to know

Now that you have a general understanding of Base64 and ASCII, let’s take a look at other important terms in the encoding process. Base64 terms and definitions to know include:

  • Data:URL: This term is used to describe a file within a file embedded by content creators. For example, a video that appears in a Google Doc file would be a data:URL.
  • MIME content transfer encoding: This program allows more or less than standard binary data to be transmitted in an email by the Content-Transfer-Encoding Header. As simple email transfer protocols can vary from country to country, this allows you to deliver emails to foreign computer servers that may otherwise block your transmission.
  • JavaScript: This is the scripting language used by most websites. JavaScript allows you to update content, control multimedia, and generally keep your website up-to-date.
  • Unicode: Unicode is a phenomenal encoding process that stores all of the symbols, numerals, and letters used in every known language. The ancient Aramaic scroll you stumbled upon on an obscure website, late one rainy night? Thanks, Unicode! (However, based on horror movie canon alone, we don’t recommend translating this without knowing what it conveys … or summons.)

What’s the difference between Base64 encoding and encryption?

Although both encoding and encryption are extremely important for seamless online activity, the two processes are not the same. Base64 encoding ensures the transmission and conversion of binary data. Encryption allows that data to be transmitted securely. 

Base64 encoding uses a public algorithm, whereas encryption makes its algorithm private. Encryption also uses a secret key which only the encrypter should know. Encoding does not present an issue for hackers, encryption can only be intercepted by hacking.

We hope we’ve answered your basic questions about Base64 encoding. For more information on ways to protect yourself online, check out the What is My IP Address blog. Our website also offers easy tools that you can utilize to keep your computer activity safe.

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