Encryption: How To and Why It’s Important

used with permission from Norton by Symantec
by Nadia Kovacs

Encryption is the process of protecting personal data, often with a form of “secret code,” so that it cannot be read by anyone who doesn’t have the code key. Today, huge amounts of personal information are managed online, via computer applications, and stored in the cloud, or servers with an ongoing connection to the Web.

It’s nearly impossible to do business of any kind without personal data ending up in a networked computer system, whether you are a buyer, seller, private citizen, or major corporation. So why should you get serious about encryption?

Why Encryption Matters

Why encrypt? Here are five good reasons:

1. Internet privacy concerns are real. In one recent survey, 92 percent of respondents said they worried about their online privacy. Encryption helps protect privacy by turning personal information into “for your eyes only” messages intended only for the parties that need them — and no one else.

2. Hacking remains big business. “Hackers” aren’t just bored kids in a basement anymore — they’re big business, and in some cases, they’re multinational outfits. Security violations at places like JPMorgan Chase, Home Depot, and Target demonstrate that people out to steal personal information can take on even the biggest companies and win, unless those companies are prepared.

3. Regulations demand it. Healthcare providers are required by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) to implement security features that protect patients’ sensitive health information. Institutions of higher learning must take similar steps under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), while retailers must contend with the Fair Credit Practices Act (FCPA) and similar laws. Encryption helps businesses stay compliant.

4. People want encryption. Recent surveys show that not only are consumers concerned about their data, but they also understand that encryption helps protect it. For businesses, offering encryption is a powerful way to draw in business while doing business better.

5. Not all encryption is created equal. All encryption encodes data, but not all encryption focuses on making that encoding crack-proof. Choosing the right encryption methods is as important as choosing to encrypt in the first place.

When Should You Use Encryption to Secure Your Data?

There are many good reasons to encrypt data, but a large number of people still hesitate to do so. For one thing, it sounds like a burden. Does everything need to be encrypted? How long does it take? What if I lose my “key”?

In fact, many encryption tools make it easy to encrypt personal data on devices like your laptop or smartphone. These tools build the encryption and the “key” to unlock it around your password, so you don’t have to remember additional information.

It’s a good idea to encrypt when:

  • Your devices contain sensitive information, like your contact information, medical records, bank account information, or business documents.
  • You store or send sensitive data online. If you never file your taxes online or make an online purchase, you may not need to encrypt your data. If you use the Internet to carry out these tasks, refill prescriptions, renew your driver’s license, or take any other personal steps, however, encryption is a wise idea.
  • Your work requires it. Your business may have encryption protocols (and if you run a business, you should certainly create some), or it may be subject to regulations that require encryption. In these cases, encryption is a must.

How to Implement Good Encryption

Most personal devices have encryption options built in. Windows’ Encrypting File System (EFS) or “OpenPGP” options in popular email programs like Postbox or Thunderbird make it simple to encrypt files and email messages. These systems build encryption keys around your password, so you don’t have to remember any additional information in order to access your own files.

If you’re using a business device, your company’s IT department should have encryption recommendations, software, or protocols you can use.