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What is Data Encryption?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Data encryption is a process in which plaintext data is converted into ciphertext so that it cannot be read. More generally known as “encryption,” this process can be accomplished in a wide variety of ways, and with varying degrees of success. Some of the best data encryption can last for centuries, while other types of decryption can be broken in minutes or even seconds by people who are skilled at such tasks. In the digital age, people rely heavily on data encryption on a daily basis. Chances are high that you have received or sent encrypted data at some point today, even if you did not directly perform the encryption or decryption of the data.

In this process, a perfectly ordinary piece of plaintext which can be read by anyone is converted so that it can only be read by someone with a key. One of the simplest forms of data encryption is a simple alphabetic substitution, in which the letters of the alphabet are scrambled to create a key. One could decide, for example, to shift the letters of the alphabet by five places so that “E” stands for “A,” “F” for “B” and so forth for a simple key, or the letters could be assigned at random to make a piece of text more difficult to decipher without the key.

A page of encrypted data.
A page of encrypted data.

An alphabetic substitution is usually fairly easy to break; in fact, many major newspapers have a simple substitution on their puzzles page for people to solve. More complex methods of data encryption can be used to make a code more challenging to break. With complex codes, people can try to use brute force to crack the encryption, and they may eventually succeed, but it will take a long time. Many methods of encryption focus on keeping the key secure, and allowing the encrypted data to be freely seen, under the argument that once encrypted, the data is harmless, as long as people cannot obtain the key.

There are a number of reasons to need to encrypt data, most of which rely on shielding data from the eyes of other people. Banks, for example, send encrypted data about their clients back and forth, while governments rely on encryption to get secure messages to overseas embassies. Most email programs offer data encryption while sending and receiving so that emails cannot be read by third parties, as do sites which handle personal information like addresses and credit card numbers.

Some encryption protocols are standardized so that people can easily communicate with each other, while in other cases, a key may be developed specifically for use by particular people, and the key is not standardized to make it harder to crack. Personalized keys were once the only way to encrypt data, until shared key encryption allowed people to exchange information about a key across an open network without disclosing the contents of the key itself.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a EasyTechJunkie researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a EasyTechJunkie researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

Discussion Comments


Given the amount of personal data which is now scanned and available on a computer, I hope laws are enacted to require companies to secure such data via encryption in the event the computer is stolen.


@IceCarver: There is no one more interested in cracking encryption methods than the government. It is not easy to brute-force a good encryption system, even for them with the resources they can muster.

Hackers are using whatever tools and techniques they can develop to get into unencrypted data. They'll try to find or guess the keys required to unlock the data, but they cannot break the encryption itself.


@JoseJames has made some great observations about the consumer market for data encryption but all of these comments neglect to mention the fact that the highest form of data encryption in the world is that used in the military industrial complex.

Tasks including the most secretive intelligence missions to simple messages from family members to service personnel are encrypted when they travel over the military computer networks.


@IceCarver, I can understand your skeptisicsm on the topic of internet data encryption but I think there is some reality that you must bring to your viewpoint.

You are correct in that our dependence on data security is taking a sharp turn upward but this isn't a bad thing as the availability to increase digital information will directly correlate to the spread of knowledge and information.

What you fail to realize is that while there are many maliciously-intended cracking groups attempting to break the latest scheme of data encryption, there is also a bigger and much more significant movement working the legal side of data encryption.

Security firms with the sole business purpose of providing data security to organizations are growing larger and large and are providing more and more staff to the overall effort of securing consumer and professional data.

Sure, there are lots of bad people out there but I can assure you that there are a lot more and much higher paid amount of people that make up the good side of data encryption.


@CoffeeJim, I appreciate that you feel so secure with data encryption in this very dangerous digital age but I have some very stark news to add to your reality.

Data encryption in the modern day is very far from safe. While there is a constant battle going on in the cyberspaces there has been a resurgence in the cracking of data encryption algorithms.

It seems that whenever the latest and greatest data security hits the market and touts unbreakable barriers to your data it is only a matter of months or days before illicit groups manage to overcome your thoughts of protection.

Besides the typical impacts of everyday brute force hacking, data decryption efforts by crackers takes a top priority as more and more information becomes available in a digital format.

More and more we will have to rely on the security of these complicated math-based systems and it seems that the battle gets tougher and tougher everyday.


Data encryption is essential to the everyday and highly technology-enhacnced lives that we live.

Most people would disregard computer data encryption as a nerdy endeavor only meant for geeks in big glasses behind bright screens. The truth is that the simplest tasks in our day to day functions require the use of data encryption.

A simple swipe of your debit or credit card at the grocery store will provide you with the reminder that your personal information needs to be protected in a variety of ways that use encryption.

Beyond you simple banking needs there are other uses of data encryption that affect you on a day to day basis. Another example is the use of medical records at a doctor's office.

More and more we are seeing that our precious and private medical records are being digitalized for various reason including the ease of transfer between specialists, reduction of environmental impact and the ability to easily analyze years of data without going through hundreds of papers.

I am especially thankful of data encryption for the safety of my medical records specifically.

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    • A page of encrypted data.
      By: Cousin_Avi
      A page of encrypted data.