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Encryption: An Essential Yet Highly Controversial Component of Digital Security
If you’ve been keeping up with recent security news, you are most likely aware of the heated worldwide debate about encryption that is currently underway. Strong encryption is imperative to securing sensitive data and protecting individuals’ privacy online, yet governments around the world refuse to recognize this, and are continually aiming to break encryption in an effort to increase the power of their law enforcement agencies.
Governments have been trying for years to require that companies build backdoors, or deliberate weaknesses in encryption intended to provide easy access to encrypted data, into encrypted software and technology, arguing that unbroken encryption makes criminal investigations too difficult. The FBI has been using the term “going dark” since the late 90’s to describe the “threat” that strong encryption poses to omnipresent government surveillance.
This fear of strong, unbroken encryption is not only unfounded - it is dangerous. Encryption with built-in backdoors which provide special access for select groups not only has the potential to be abused by law enforcement and government agencies by allowing them to eavesdrop on potentially any digital conversation, it could also be easily exploited by threat actors and criminals.
US Attorney General William Barr and US senators are currently pushing for legislation that would force technology companies to build backdoors into their products, but technology companies are fighting back full force. Apple and Facebook have spoken out against the introduction of encryption backdoors, warning that it would introduce massive security and privacy threats and would serve as an incentive for users to choose devices from overseas. Apple’s user privacy manager Erik Neuenschwander states, “We’ve been unable to identify any way to create a backdoor that would work only for the good guys.” Facebook has taken a more defiant stance on the issue, adamantly saying that it would not provide access to encrypted messages in Facebook and WhatsApp.
Senator Lindsey Graham has responded to this resistance authoritatively, advising the technology giants to “get on with it”, and stating that the Senate will ultimately “impose its will” on privacy advocates and technologists. However, Graham’s statement appears unrealistic, and several lawmakers have indicated that Congress won’t make much progress on this front in 2020.
This article will examine the pivotal role that strong encryption plays in digital privacy and security, and hopefully dispel some of the common and detrimental myths that exist surrounding encryption.
What is Encryption and Why Is It So Important?
Encryption is the process of encoding information in a manner in which only authorized parties can access it and unauthorized parties cannot. Encryption does not prevent interference, but rather denies intelligible content to anyone who does not have access to a specific encryption key.
The right encryption is highly effective in preventing data theft, and has a long history of being used by governments and militaries to facilitate secret communication. Encryption is now commonly used to protect sensitive or confidential information for all types of uses and users. It is essential in protecting data in transit in cases such as email communications, information transferred via networks and mobile phone conversations.
The Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) is the standard algorithm that is used in virtually all cryptography today. AES was established by the United States National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and is the only publicly accessible cipher approved by the National Security Agency (NSA) for government use.
Encryption: Vital to Effective Email Security
Encryption is an essential part of any email strategy or solution. It protects sensitive information shared via email such as financials, customer records and intellectual property, while preventing data loss. All effective email security gateway solutions utilize strong encryption as a means of providing complete, end-to-end email email protection.
When it comes to encrypting email, there are various protocols that email security providers often incorporate into their solutions. They include:
- Transport Layer Security (TLS): TLS is a cryptographic protocol designed to secure communications over a computer network. The protocol aims to provide privacy and data integrity by encrypting email traffic from server to server.
- Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting & Conformance (DMARC): DMARC is an email authentication protocol that gives email domain owners the ability to protect their domain from unauthorized users. Once a DMARC Domain Name System (DNS) is published, receiving email servers can authenticate incoming emails based on the instructions published by the domain owner within their DNS entry. DMARC helps protect a domain from threats such as phishing and business email compromise (BEC).
- Sender Policy Framework (SPF): SPF is a method of email authentication which detects the forging of sender addresses during the delivery of an email message. This protocol allows a receiving mail server to confirm that mail claiming to come from a specific domain is submitted by an IP address authorized by the administrators of that domain. Only in combination with DMARC is SPF capable of identifying email spoofing, or the creation of email messages with a forged sender address which is often used in phishing and email spam.
- DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM): DKIM is an email authentication method designed to detect email spoofing. By attaching a digital signature linked to a domain name to each outgoing email message, it allows either technology or end users to confirm that an email claimed to have come from a certain domain was indeed authorized by the owner of that domain.
When choosing an email security gateway solution, look for one that utilizes most, or preferably all, of these encryption protocols. As with any aspect of security, defense in depth is key to effective protection, and encryption is no exception. Multiple methods of email authentication working in concert will be highly beneficial in terms of protecting your privacy and the integrity of your data.
Guardian Digital EnGarde Cloud Email Security is an ideal solution for organizations looking to secure their email accounts with multiple layers of encryption and email authentication protocols. EnGarde provides comprehensive end-to-end business email protection using TLS, DMARC, SPF and DKIM to protect sensitive data and authenticate every email that is delivered, mitigating the risks associated with malicious emails reaching the inbox.
Encryption and Network Security
In addition to the vital role that it plays in email security, encryption is also a critical aspect of network security. Network encryption, or the process of encrypting messages transmitted over a computer network, is essential in protecting the privacy and integrity of data in transit between networks. It ensures that data is unreadable when it is transferred between network nodes, preventing eavesdropping of network traffic by unauthorized users.
The SSL standard is the default form of network data protection for Internet communications; however, many companies also choose to secure their internal networks, virtual private networks (VPNs) and corporate backbone networks with network level encryption to help protect against cyber attacks and data breaches.
On IP-based networks, Internet Protocol Security (IPSec) is an open standard which provides encryption at the network level, acting as a framework that can authenticate connections and confirm the integrity of data. IPSec can be used to securely transfer data from network-to-network, host-to-host or network-to-host. With IPSec, individual messages may also be encrypted at the application level with tools such as GNU Privacy Guard and OpenSSH.
Ransomware: The Dark Side of Encryption
While encryption has had a largely positive impact on cybersecurity, like any powerful tool, threat actors have developed ways to incorporate it into their exploits. The primary example of this “dark side” of encryption is ransomware, a type of malware designed to encrypt a victim’s files until they have paid the sum of money that the attack demands. While ransomware decryption tools exist for many common ransomware variants, these tools are typically not available for newer or less common strains of ransomware.
Ransomware attacks are on the rise and can have severe consequences for organizations. Over the past year, ransomware attacks from phishing emails have increased by an alarming 109 percent, putting 60% of small companies victimized out of business with six months of getting hit with an attack. Implementing an advanced, comprehensive business email security gateway solution that identifies and combats sophisticated threats like ransomware in real time is the most effective way for organizations to mitigate their risk.
The Bottom Line
Encryption is an essential component of digital security that should be embraced, not feared. In any scenario, unencrypted data is subject to prying eyes. Strong, unbroken encryption is vital in protecting privacy and securing data both in transit and in storage, and backdoors would leave sensitive data vulnerable to tampering and theft. Encryption prevents governments from spying on companies and citizens, a task that is more critical than ever after the implementation of the PRISM surveillance program, in which the National Security Agency (NSA) indiscriminantly monitors communications en masse, supposedly in an effort to combat terrorism. The argument for incorporating backdoors into encrypted communications is unfounded and fundamentally flawed, and is ultimately a disguise for government surveillance and the abuse of power.
What are your thoughts on the current debate surrounding encryption? Leave a comment below and let us know - we are passionate about this topic and would love to have a discussion!