Encryption has, and always will be, inseparable from digital freedom. It is the one safeguard that protects our data from theft and the best means of defense in a world free from crippling regulations.
And make no mistake—regulation meant to “protect us” is simply the beginning of the end of digital freedom. By limiting our choices, much in the way that manufacturers such as Apple are trying to do with hardware, these special interests seek to control the net and our experience while using it.
These are the interests that would see us without encryption because it threatens their ability to control things. They claim a regulated internet would be safer, but you should always ask yourself this key question: safer for whom?
Maintaining Our Interests
So long as the internet remains a free bastion of information and commerce, encryption is necessary to protect us from interests both corporate and private. On the corporate end, companies seek to harvest our data and use it to influence the choices we make with marketing and by tailoring content to their goals.
Private interests are the hackers and scammers—they seek to steal information for profit or for fun, though the former is increasingly common. Using malware, phishing, and packet injection, they aim to either coax us into handing over information or steal it directly via data interception or social engineering.
On the private end, we use encryption to stop both of these parties. For instance, many users have begun using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to shield themselves from unsecure networks and websites. VPNs provide protective encryption that stops data from being stolen (more accurately makes that stolen data unusable) and keeps the user’s IP address from being tracked.
They also stop oppressive governments or seedy companies from controlling content by geographic location by the same method they stop IP tracking (remote servers can be located in any country, allowing the user freedom to virtually access from anywhere).
With all that said, not all business interests are bad.
For progress to continue in the online space as it pertains to shopping, detail, and private sales, encryption is absolutely necessary. It helps maintain the current freedom of trade online by securing transactions.
You may not even be aware of it, but every time you visit a website with https:// instead of http://, that page is encrypted. This is most frequently used with shopping cart or checkout pages to prevent user payment information from being intercepted or stolen. It protects both the business and the consumer and is the cornerstone of any good online business.
Without this innovation, businesses such as Amazon or even smalltime online shops would be unable to be successful. The burgeoning online market flourishes because it is free of the same constraints faced by brick and mortar operations.
But when security concerns become too costly, many businesses fail. These are usually those that don’t pursue industry standard encryption, although some do fall to simple social engineering (phishing scams, etc.)
Not surprisingly, healthcare is also experiencing tremendous growth thanks to the power of digital freedom. Providers are now capable of communicating patient information instantly with one another and have a much easier time coordinating lifesaving treatments and preventing error.
But the healthcare industry is also a #1 target for e-criminals. Because so much personal information is being exchanged—home addresses, credit information, medical history, etc.—the motivation to become a digital thief has never been higher.
Among a few other things, encryption remains the best way of dealing with these “cyberattacks” because it renders data unusable for anyone without the proper decryption package. Encrypted data is essentially scrambled information, no so different from a coded message.
The real defining feature is the amount of time required to decode an encrypted package without the decoder. We’re talking years, if not decades—long enough that the time spent mitigates any possible value gained by breaking the encryption.
Unfortunately not all healthcare providers are taking the threat seriously. Their unwillingness or ignorance of encryption’s part in safeguarding patient information is seriously threatening digital freedom as lawmakers seek to put an end to the repeated data breaches experienced each year.
Looking to Tomorrow
Today’s industry standard encryption is quite good; 256-bit encryption is incredibly resilient and is one of the foundations of a secure and free internet. But we will need to do better in the future if encryption is to remain a safeguard against tyranny.
Already there’s been talk about quantum computing making all current encryptions irrelevant. With the incredible jump in processing power seemingly just around the corner, innovators need to move fast to develop and implement a more complicated system if we hope to preserve current autonomy.
In this respect, it’s a race against government resources. Governments especially have much to gain from being able to break encryptions, particularly those of other competing countries. Naturally this is a weapon that can be turned against us—the real question is who will win the race.
What do you think of encryption? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.
About the Author: Carla is a technology blogger and security expert. Her enthusiasm for security comes from a strong desire to maintain autonomy online, the place she believes is the last true bastion of intellectual freedom.