David has over 40 years of industry experience in software development and information technology and a bachelor of computer science
The Time We Spend on Communication
We spend a great deal of time communicating. We talk to our families at various points throughout the day, and in particular, with our significant others. We talk to our friends on the phone, about a wide variety of topics. And we send email to various parties as we move through the tasks of our typical work-day. With this in mind, would you expect these topics, at times, to cover information that is of a sensitive nature? Without a doubt! You've probably contemplated this yourself at some point. So the question becomes, what do you do about it? You could simply avoid sensitive topics, or you could employ technologies like end-to-end encryption.
What is Encryption?
Encryption is a transformation process. It changes the form of information, and hides it from those with malicious intent. It uses a key (some external data), and a sequence of mathematically-based steps to perform this transformation. This combination introduces a random aspect to the process that augments its strength, or its ability to resist attacks. It is also reversible, meaning that the original information can be obtained from the transformed. It contributes a fundamental part of many business and personal activities including ecommerce transactions, email delivery, and phone calls. It does its work silently, behind the scenes.
What is End-to-End Encryption?
End-to-end encryption is not a specific form or type. Rather, it is a group of encryption techniques used to transmit information from one place to another. The techniques that fall into this category have a common characteristic: only the sender/receiver pair can read the information. This means it is not decrypted at any point during transmission (unlike other forms like Link encryption). This reduces the amount of exposure the unprotected information receives, and increases its resistance to attacks. It is commonly used in situations like important political emails, military communications, and secured cell phone traffic.
How Does End-to-End Encryption Apply to Email?
Email lends itself perfectly to end-to-end encryption. In fact, the process of sending and receiving email was probably one of the reasons end-to-end encryption was created in the first place. Most of us are familiar with the email send/receive process. But just to review, with encryption in the mix, here are the steps:
- An email is composed in our favorite email program (Outlook, Firefox, Google Mail, etc).
- You click 'send', and the message goes into the send queue.
- When its turn arrives, your message is encrypted and sent through the Internet to its destination.
- The message is received by the destination.
- The receiver clicks the message for viewing.
- The message is decrypted and displayed.
It is important to note that the encrypt/decrypt process is pretty much transparent to the user. Normally, it requires only two things. First, you have to enable the encryption. This is usually an option in your email program. And second, you have to enter your key. There are various methods for doing that depending on your client.
How Does End-to-End Encryption Apply to Android?
You may be surprised to learn that calls placed on your Android phone (or any cell phone for that matter) resemble email traffic in some respects. At a high level, a call looks as follows:
- The call is dialed, and the connection to the recipient is established.
- Any words that are spoken get digitized (converted to digital data).
- The digitized information gets packetized (broken up into pieces).
- The packets are sent through the connection.
- The packets are received.
- The packets are assembled, and converted back to voice.
- The voice is played through the phone's speaker.
The data packets sent over the connection resemble email messages. Granted, there are more of them, and they travel along a different network (cell vs. Internet), but the idea is the same. In any event, the packets are encrypted at the source, and decrypted at the destination (end-to-end), just like email.
To recap, encryption is the process of converting information from one form to another, with the purpose of hiding it from those that are not authorized. End-to-end encryption is a category of encryption techniques that transmits information from one place to another. The category has one defining characteristic, only the sender/receiver pair can read the information. End-to-end encryption is used with email and Android devices in the same way. Information is encrypted at the source, and decrypted at the destination. It is not decrypted at any point in between.
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