Data Encryption Techniques - Online Article

Introduction

Often there has been a need to protect information from 'prying eyes'. In the electronic age, information that could otherwise benefit or educate a group or individual can also be used against such groups or individuals. Industrial espionage among highly competitive businesses often requires that extensive security measures be put into place. And, those who wish to exercise their personal freedom, outside of the oppressive nature of governments, may also wish to encrypt certain information to avoid suffering the penalties of going against the wishes of those who attempt to control.

Methods of Encrypting Data

Traditionally, several methods can be used to encrypt data streams, all of which can easily be implemented through software, but not so easily decrypted when either the original or its encrypted data stream are unavailable. (When both source and encrypted data are available, code-breaking becomes much simpler, though it is not necessarily easy). The best encryption methods have little effect on system performance, and may contain other benefits (such as data compression) built in. The well-known 'PKZIP®' utility offers both compression AND data encryption in this manner. Also DBMS packages have often included some kind of encryption scheme so that a standard 'file copy' cannot be used to read sensitive information that might otherwise require some kind of password to access. They also need 'high performance' methods to encode and decode the data.

Fortunately, the simplest of all of the methods, the 'translation table', meets this need very well. Each 'chunk' of data (usually 1 byte) is used as an offset within a 'translation table', and the resulting 'translated' value from within the table is then written into the output stream. The encryption and decryption programs would each use a table that translates to and from the encrypted data. In fact, the 80x86 CPU's even have an instruction 'XLAT' that lends itself to this purpose at the hardware level. While this method is very simple and fast, the down side is that once the translation table is known, the code is broken. Further, such a method is relatively straightforward for code breakers to decipher - such code methods have been used for years, even before the advent of the computer. Still, for general "unreadability" of encoded data, without adverse effects on performance, the 'translation table' method lends itself well.

A modification to the 'translation table' uses 2 or more tables, based on the position of the bytes within the data stream, or on the data stream itself. Decoding becomes more complex, since you have to reverse the same process reliably. But, by the use of more than one translation table, especially when implemented in a 'pseudo-random' order, this adaptation makes code breaking relatively difficult. An example of this method might use translation table 'A' on all of the 'even' bytes, and translation table 'B' on all of the 'odd' bytes. Unless a potential code breaker knows that there are exactly 2 tables, even with both source and encrypted data available the deciphering process is relatively difficult.

Similar to using a translation table, 'data repositioning' lends itself to use by a computer, but takes considerably more time to accomplish. A buffer of data is read from the input, then the order of the bytes (or other 'chunk' size) is rearranged, and written 'out of order'. The decryption program then reads this back in, and puts them back 'in order'. Often such a method is best used in combination with one or more of the other encryption methods mentioned here, making it even more difficult for code breakers to determine how to decipher your encrypted data. As an example, consider an anagram. The letters are all there, but the order has been changed. Some anagrams are easier than others to decipher, but a well written anagram is a brain teaser nonetheless, especially if it's intentionally misleading.

Methods, however, involve something that only computers can do: word/byte rotation and XOR bit masking. If you rotate the words or bytes within a data stream, using multiple and variable direction and duration of rotation, in an easily reproducable pattern, you can quickly encode a stream of data with a method that is nearly impossible to break. Further, if you use an 'XOR mask' in combination with this ('flipping' the bits in certain positions from 1 to 0, or 0 to

  • You end up making the code breaking process even more difficult. The best combination would also use 'pseudo random' effects, the easiest of which would involve a simple sequence like Fibbonaci numbers. The sequence '1,1,2,3,5,...' is easily generated by adding the previous 2 numbers in the sequence to get the next. Doing modular arithmetic on the result (i.e. Fib. sequence mod 3 to get rotation factor) and operating on multiple byte sequences (using a prime number of bytes for rotation is usually a good guideline) will make the code breaker's job even more difficult, adding the 'pseudo-random' effect that is easily reproduced by your decryption program.

In some cases, you may want to detect whether data has been tampered with, and encrypt some kind of 'checksum' into the data stream itself. This is useful not only for authorization codes but for programs themselves. A virus that infects such a 'protected' program would no doubt neglect the encryption algorithm and authorization/checksum signature. The program could then check itself each time it loads, and thus detect the presence of file corruption. Naturally, such a method would have to be kept VERY secret, as virus programmers represent the worst of the code breakers: those who willfully use information to do damage to others. As such, the use of encryption is mandatory for any decent anti-virus protection scheme.

Key-Based Encryption Algorithms

One very important feature of a good encryption scheme is the ability to specify a 'key' or 'password' of some kind, and have the encryption method alter itself such that each 'key' or 'password' produces a different encrypted output, which requires a unique 'key' or 'password' to decrypt. This can either be a 'symmetrical' key (both encrypt and decrypt use the same key) or 'asymmetrical' (encrypt and decrypt keys are different). The popular 'PGP' public key encryption, and the 'RSA' encryption that it's based on, uses an 'asymmetrical' key. The encryption key, the 'public key', is significantly different from the decryption key, the 'private key', such that attempting to derive the private key from the public key involves many many hours of computing time, making it impractical at best.

There are few operations in mathematics that are truly 'irreversible'. In nearly all cases, if an operation is performed on 'a', resulting in 'b', you can perform an equivalent operation on 'b' to get 'a'. In some cases you may get the absolute value (such as a square root), or the operation may be undefined (such as dividing by zero). However, in the case of 'undefined' operations, it may be possible to base a key on an algorithm such that an operation like division by zero would PREVENT a public key from being translated into a private key. As such, only 'trial and error' would remain, which would require a significant amount of processing time to create the private key from the public key.

In the case of the RSA encryption algorithm, it uses very large prime numbers to generate the public key and the private key. Although it would be possible to factor out the public key to get the private key (a trivial matter once the 2 prime factors are known), the numbers are so large as to make it very impractical to do so. The encryption algorithm itself is ALSO very slow, which makes it impractical to use RSA to encrypt large data sets. What PGP does (and most other RSA-based encryption schemes do) is encrypt a symmetrical key using the public key, then the remainder of the data is encrypted with a faster algorithm using the symmetrical key. The symmetrical itself key is randomly generated, so that the only way to get it would be by using the private key to decrypt the RSA-encrypted symmetrical key.

Example:  Suppose you want to encrypt data (let's say this web page) with a key of 12345.  Using your public key, you RSA-encrypt the 12345, and put that at the front of the data stream (possibly followed by a marker or preceded by a data length to distinguish it from the rest of the data).  THEN, you follow the 'encrypted key' data with the encrypted web page text, encrypted using your favorite method and the key '12345'.  Upon receipt, the decrypt program looks for (and finds) the encrypted key, uses the 'private key' to decrypt it, and gets back the '12345'.  It then locates the beginning of the encrypted data stream, and applies the key '12345' to decrypt the data.  The result:  a very well protected data stream that is reliably and efficiently encrypted, transmitted, and decrypted.

Conclusion

Because of the need to ensure that only those eyes intended to view sensitive information can ever see this information, and to ensure that the information arrives un-altered, security systems have often been employed in computer systems for governments, corporations, and even individuals. Encryption schemes can be broken, but making them as hard as possible to break is the job of a good cipher designer. All you can really do is make it very very difficult for the code breaker to decipher your cipher. Still, as long as both source and encrypted data are available, it will always be possible to break your code. It just won't necessarily be easy.

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