PKI encryption - a crash course

02 Aug, 2021 4 min read
Grace Cao
Grace Cao
Technical Product Marketing Manager
With work-from-home now the default mode in most industries, organisations and employees now have to access and transfer files across home networks and personal devices on a daily basis. Naturally businesses are concerned as leaked files can have serious financial and legal repercussions. Needless to say, with organisational data more vulnerable on unsecured home networks, reinforcing data security has become a necessity and public key infrastructure (PKI) encryption is fast becoming a data security measure to offset the growing amount of risk.

But what exactly is PKI encryption? And, how can it prevent data from falling into the wrong hands? This article will cover the basic components and mechanisms of PKI encryption and show how it can safeguard your company from a potentially catastrophic data breach.

What is PKI

To understand PKI encryption, one first has to understand encryption.

Encryption is the process of converting data into a secret code that cannot be read by individuals who are not the intended recipients. The practice dates back to the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Spartans, and Romans, who wanted to conceal messages in times of war.

When text is encrypted it is converted based on fixed rules or algorithms into unreadable codes, for decoding when necessary. The Caesar Shift Cypher was a method of encryption used by Julius Caesar. It involved shifting each letter by a fixed number of spaces. For example, a left shift of five spaces would replace the letter F with the letter A, G with the letter B, and so on.

While the modern-day algorithms used in encryption are much more sophisticated than that, symmetric encryption (the most common form of encryption) still requires both the sender and receiver to have the same key. This is no different than the encryption principles used during Caesar’s day.

A major weak spot of the symmetric cryptographic system is that hackers can easily read the information if they gain access to the key. With the aid of supercomputers who can now crunch every possible password combination at lightning speeds, deciphering passwords through brute force is a piece of cake for professional hackers.

This is where PKI encryption, a form of asymmetric encryption, comes into play.

While files and data that are locked under symmetric encryption can be accessed with the right key, PKI encryption goes a step further. It will ascertain the identity of the individuals who request access to the information.

PKI Encryption: How it works

PKI-encrypted files are protected by both a public key and a private key. The public key works like traditional symmetric encryption, by scrambling file data through an algorithm to render it incomprehensible. Unlike symmetric encryption, however, the encrypted file cannot be unscrambled with the same public key. Only private keys held by the file’s intended recipients can be used to decrypt information stored in the file.

Why is PKI encryption important?

Speed, security, and usability in tandem.

In PKI encryption, every single file is locked under a unique key. This overcomes the challenges of symmetric encryption which forces workers to retrieve unique passwords to unlock files separately. This is important because studies have shown that the average employee spends over 10 hours a year inputting passwords, resulting in losses of around US$52 million a year

Beyond the loss in time and revenue, “password fatigue” also reduces overall data security, by encouraging sloppy data-protection behaviour among employees. Overwhelmed by the need to memorise an endless stream of passwords, it is not uncommon to find many recording passwords in unsecured files on personal devices or scribbling them on Post-its at their work desks.

Who uses PKI encryption?

Governments, enterprises, small businesses, educational institutions and non-profit organisations.

The best part about PKI encryption is that it can be used widely and benefit all industries. Because PKI builds encryption and decryption mechanisms directly into the files, user decisions are removed entirely and all files can be protected. This creates an environment in which employees, students, and government officials alike can carry out their work and access data files securely without the burden of keying in unique passwords over and over again.

Private keys that are required to access secured files are baked into web browsers and devices, activating automatically when authenticated devices request access to the information. This authentication process is achieved through the attachment of PKI certificates, which act as digital passwords that grant users access to the encrypted data.

This additional layer protects PKI-encrypted files from private-key leaks and brute-force hacking tactics. So, even if hackers stumble upon the private keys, they will not be able to access files locked by PKI encryption, simply because they do not have access to the very devices used by the authenticated individuals.

Where can you find PKI-based encryption software?

You’re in the right place - introducing the SecureAge Security Suite. 

This software harnesses the power of PKI-encryption technology to provide 100% data protection. It’s a seamless, and non-intrusive solution for the way in which we work. The SecureAge approach ensures you don’t have to make any trade-offs as it provides proactive protection, real-world usability and security against the unknown, win-win-win. Visit SecureAge Security Suite to find out more about the security features or contact us for a demo.

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