What is Encryption Software?

Instructor: Sudha Aravindan

Sudha is currently an Information Technology Specialist and a EdD student at the University of Delaware.

Encryption software is software that can encrypt data and files to help keep sensitive data secure. In this lesson, learn about its history as well as different keys needed to decrypt the software.

What Is Encryption Software?

You are a consultant working on a highly secure program for the government. As you work on your project you also need to attach files that contain privileged information and communicate by email with specialists from different parts of the world. What would you need to do to make sure that your email communications are secure?

One way you can keep your email communications secure is by using software known as encryption software. The encryption software will allow you to encrypt files that contain important information that you do not want to be seen by prying eyes. When you encrypt the files, the software will prompt you for a key or a password. You would then send the encrypted files by email to the members of your team. Those who need to open and read the files should have access to the same software and the key that was used, so that the files can be decrypted and made readable.

Encryption software converts plain readable files and text into text that cannot be deciphered using known human languages. Encrypted text is also called Cipher text and the software uses mathematical algorithms or logic to convert readable text into an unreadable format. Once encrypted, you will need to decrypt the file in order to read it. For example, if you try to open an encrypted file in Word, all you will see is garbled text.

History of Encryption

Encryption tools have been in use since historical times long before the days of computers and the internet. One of the earliest methods was the use of a Scytale which consisted of wrapping a piece of parchment paper around a cylinder with a certain diameter to encrypt messages, especially for use on a battlefield. The recipient would have to wrap the parchment around a cylinder of the same diameter and read while unwrapping for the message to be decrypted. In this case, the diameter of the cylinder was the key for decryption of the message.

Another method of encryption used in ancient times was known as Caesar Cipher. Here the letters in a word or sentence were shifted to the right or left of the alphabet sequence by a known number of places. The receiver and the reader would not be able to decipher the message unless they knew the key, which in this case was the number of places and the direction of the shift.

Modern Encryption Software

In today's world we cannot imagine life without the use of computers and laptops. What if you have important information on your laptop that you cannot afford to be lost or stolen? You could save all the critical files to a folder on your desktop and then encrypt the entire contents of the folder using encryption software.

There are specialized encryption software programs for encrypting files and emails. Some software requires that the recipient needs to have the same software installed for decrypting. However, there is some encryption software that does not require the recipient to have the same software installed on his device, and this can be especially useful when sending encrypted files through email.

Keys Used in Encryption Software

There are two kinds of keys used in encryption software, symmetric keys and asymmetric keys. Both methods use keys to encrypt and decrypt the electronic data (files and email messages), but the way in which the keys are used is different.

Symmetric Key or Private Key

When both the encryption and decryption method use the same key, it is known as the symmetric key method for encryption. For example, in Word you can protect a document using a password, to make the document not editable. If you create the document and protect it using a password, then someone else who needs to edit the document would have to remove the protection using the same key or password that you created.

Some encryption software uses this method for email as well. If you encrypt files using a password and send the files by email, the person receiving the files will need the same password that you created in order to be able to decrypt and read the files.

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