asymmetric vs symmetric key encryption made simple

Asymmetric vs. Symmetric Key Encryption Made Simple

At the same time that Digital Transformation is bringing us agility, innovation and more reliable management, it is an entry point for the activities of cybercriminals who see an opportunity for fraud. Therefore, we must take advantage of its benefits while being proactive in terms of cybersecurity and betting on secure Digital Transformation processes.

And this is where encryption as a solution for the protection of data and other critical assets is key within the cybersecurity strategy of a business.  We will discuss what encryption is in this post, the different types of encryption available on the market, and options for use based on the most suitable model.

What does encryption mean

Within the world of cryptography, and based on the definition given by Wikipedia, we can say that “encryption is a procedure that uses an encryption algorithm with a certain key (encryption key) to transform a message, without regard to its linguistic structure or meaning, in such a way that it is incomprehensible or, at least, difficult to understand for anyone who does not have the secret key (decryption key) of the algorithm. The encryption and decryption keys may be the same (symmetric cryptography), different (asymmetric cryptography) or of both types (hybrid cryptography).”

With the encryption key, the data is protected through algorithms, turning out in a random and unreadable text if it is not decrypted with the relevant key. This prevents fraudulent access by a third party.

Encryption will be our best ally for:

  • Protection of private data. Only those who have the correct key can access the data. This protects everything from confidential company documents to private customer information.
  • Authentication and validation of Digital Identity: With encryption, both customers and the organization’s own personnel can authenticate and validate their digital identity for access to data based on the permissions defined for them.
  • Avoid manipulation and theft. Even if someone steals a physical device with sensitive information, they will not be able to access it because they do not have the encryption and/or decryption key.
  • Comply with data protection regulations: financial sector, government and defense and other critical infrastructures require certain safeguards from their data security providers, such as compliance with international security certifications related to encryption.

What are the two main types of encryption

There are two main types of encryption: symmetric and asymmetric. Each of these have different ways of safeguarding data and allowing decryption. Let’s discuss the differences between the two, along with some potential use cases.

Symmetric Encryption

This is the simplest one since there is only one secret key to encode and decode information, although there are many different symmetric algorithms in the world.

This type of encryption is usually based on strings of random letters or numbers that obscure the plain text of a message. The AES algorithm with 128, 192 or 256 bits keys is the most commonly used in this mode.

Here are some examples of symmetric encryption use cases:

  • Financial. The banking and methods of payment industry is committed to this type of encryption for authentication and verification of the identity of its users in terms of the use of the different applications of the entity and to minimize the risks of attacks and data leakage in transactions and payments associated with bank cards.
  • Data storage: This type of encryption is the most suitable one for data stored on mobile devices whose transactions are not daily, and with private key protection we can secure them without major risk.

This encryption, also called secret key encryption, uses only a single key to encrypt and decrypt the data. Therefore, the sender is forced to share the key with the receiver.

However, this process of symmetric encryption is, sometimes, as in the protection of very sensitive data, considered to be more vulnerable and hence, one of the reasons why asymmetric encryption was developed as an alternative.

Asymmetric Encryption 

This encryption uses a pair of mathematically related keys (a public and a private key), rather than a single secret key, like in symmetric encryption. The public key is used to encrypt the plain text messages and is more accessible, whereas the private key is used to decrypt it and only is obtained by the recipient of the information.

The key benefit of asymmetric encryption is that it makes transfers of data more secure as users do not need to share their private keys.

In short, this encryption requires a private key for the recipient to decrypt the data and a public key for the sender to encrypt, without exposing the secret key as in the symmetric encryption model.

Common use cases include:

  • Digital signatures. Digital signatures are used across industries to authenticate user identities and to sign documents online, quickly and securely.
  • PKI. Public key infrastructure processes for certification, registration and validation of documents.
  • Cryptocurrency. Many cryptocurrencies and other cryptoassets use asymmetric encryption when conducting transactions between users.

While it is true that scaling asymmetric encryption is slower and requires more resources than symmetric encryption, we also note that its security is more robust.

Compare & Contrast: Asymmetric vs. Symmetric Key Encryption

Both encryption models have their advantages and disadvantages. The right choice will depend on the security needs and requirements of each business and the scale at which it operates. Although it is important to keep in mind that a combination of these two types of encryption is common and beneficial to take advantage of both models.

Symmetric Encryption Pros & Cons

Here are some pros of symmetric encryption:

  • Simple set up
  • Fast
  • Requires less investment of resources
  • Efficient for managing large quantities of data
  • Robust against brute force attacks

And here are some disadvantages:

  • Risk of breaches due to shared keys
  • Risk of usurpation when transferring data between two parties

Asymmetric Encryption Pros & Cons

Here are some pros of asymmetric encryption:

  • No private/secret key distribution required
  • Strong against brute force attacks

And here are some disadvantages of asymmetric encryption:

  • Slower
  • Requires more resources
  • Public key (or certificate) distribution required

Which is right for you?

Ensuring that your data is well protected is critical when running a business. Whether you are protecting your trade secrets or safeguarding your customers’ personal data, there is a data encryption solution that fits your needs.

But encryption is not a one-size-fits-all option, and that’s where REALSEC comes in. We are a cybersecurity company here to help companies in all industries find specialized encryption solutions. To learn more about encryption or to discuss what would work best for your business contact the REALSEC team today.

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