Understanding Encryption Technologies

A Hands-On Approach for Those of Us Who Aren't Good at Math

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WPA2, WEP, 3DES, AES, Symmetric, Asymmetric: What do all these terms mean, and why should you care?

All the terms above are related to encryption technologies used to protect your data. Encryption and cryptography, in general, can be difficult topics to wrap your head around. (The words "cryptographic algorithm" may trigger a mental picture of some nerdy professor writing equations on a chalkboard, muttering something to himself about the Medulla Oblongata as your eyes glaze over from boredom.) Fortunately, we break things down in a simple manner that's easy to digest.

Why Should You Care About Encryption?

The main reason you need to care about encryption is that sometimes it's the only thing between your data and the bad guys. You need to know the basics so that you will, at the very least, know how your data is being protected by your bank, e-mail provider, etc. You want to make sure they're not using outdated stuff that hackers have already cracked.

Encryption is used just about everywhere in all kinds of applications. The main purpose for the use of encryption is to protect the confidentiality of data or to aid in the protection of the integrity of a message or file. Encryption can be used for both data 'in transit', such as when it is being moved from one system to another, or for data 'at rest' on a DVD, USB thumb drive, or another storage medium.

The Best Way to Learn About Encryption and Cryptography

One of the earliest tools to use to get hands-on experience with encryption was an application called CrypTool. CrypTool was originally developed by the Deutsche Bank back in 1998 in an effort to improve its employees understanding of cryptography. Since then, CrypTool has evolved into a suite of educational tools and is used by other companies, as well as universities, and anyone else who wants to learn about encryption, cryptography, and cryptanalysis.

The original Cryptool, now known as Cryptool 1 (CT1), was a Microsoft Windows-based application. Since that time, there have been several other versions released such as Cryptool 2 (a modernized version of CrypTool, JCrypTool (for Mac, Win, and Linux), as well as a purely browser-based version called CrypTool-Online.

In all their iterations, all of these apps have one goal in mind: make cryptography something that non-mathematician-type regular folks can understand.

If studying encryption and cryptography still sounds a little on the boring side, fear not — the best part of anything crypto-related is the part where you get to code-break. Cryptanalysis is a fancy word for code-breaking or trying to figure out what the decrypted message is, without having the key. This is the fun part of studying all this stuff because everyone likes a puzzle and wants to be a hacker of sorts.

The CrypTool creators even have a contest site for would-be code-breakers called MysteryTwister. The site lets you try your luck against ciphers requiring only pen and paper, or you can step up to more complicated challenges that require some programming skills coupled with some serious computing power.

If you really think you've got what it takes, you can test your skills against the "Unsolved Ciphers". These ciphers have been analyzed and researched by the best of the best for years and have still not been cracked. If you crack one of these then you might just earn yourself a place in history as the guy or gal who cracked the uncrackable (Who knows, you might even land yourself a job with the NSA!).

The point is, encryption doesn't have to be a big scary monster. Even if you aren't so great at math, it doesn't mean you can't understand encryption and have fun learning about it to boot. Give CrypTool a try — you just might be the next great code-breaker out there.