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Encryption: What it is, how it can help, and what to watch out for

Were you ever guilty of passing notes at school? If so, you'll remember all-too-well the dread of those notes being intercepted by someone not meant to read them – like a bully or worse, your teacher.

Sending data over the internet is much the same. Your digital life, including bank and credit information, personally identifiable information, and even social site login details, is vulnerable when sent on unprotected networks. In fact, a recent cyber safety report showed that 33 per cent of New Zealanders experienced cybercrime in the past 12 months.

That's where VPN encryption may help.

What is encryption? 

Encryption is a process that scrambles readable text so it can only be read by the person who has the secret code or decryption key. It helps provide data security for sensitive information.

Encryption takes plain text, like a text message or email, and scrambles it into an unreadable format — called "ciphertext." This helps protect the confidentiality of digital data stored on computer systems or transmitted through a network like the internet. Then, when the intended recipient accesses the message, the information is translated back to its original form - decryption.
 
To unlock the message, both the sender and the recipient must use a "secret" encryption key — a collection of algorithms that scramble and unscramble data back to a readable format.

How does encryption keep the internet secure? 

It's nearly impossible to do business of any kind without your personal data ending up in an organisation's networked computer system, which is why it's important to know how to help keep that data private. Encryption plays an essential role in this task.

Most legitimate websites use the encryption protection called "secure sockets layer" (SSL), which is a form of encrypting data that is sent to and from a website. This keeps attackers from accessing that data while it is in transit.

Want to make sure a site is using this technology? Look for the padlock icon in the URL bar and the "s" in the "https://". If you see these signs, you'll know that you are conducting secure, encrypted transactions online.

Why does encryption matter? 

  • Internet privacy concerns are real.
    Encryption helps protect your online privacy by turning personal information into "for your eyes only" messages intended only for the parties that need them — and no one else. You should make sure that your emails are being sent over an encrypted connection or that you are encrypting each message.  If you check your email with a web browser, take a moment to ensure that SSL encryption is available.
  • Hacking is big business. 
    Cybercrime is a global business, often run by multinational outfits. Many of the large-scale data breaches in the news demonstrate that cybercriminals are often out to steal personal information for financial gain. 

A 2022 cyber safety report, conducted online in partnership with The Harris Poll among 1,000 adults in New Zealand, revealed that cybercrime victims in New Zealand surveyed spent an average of 4.8 hours trying to resolve their issues, with an average loss of $135NZD from cybercrime.

Can scammers use encryption to commit cybercrimes?

Encryption is designed to protect your data but can also be used against you. Targeted ransomware is a cybercrime that can impact organisations of all sizes, including government offices.  Ransomware can also target individual computer users.

How do ransomware attacks occur? 

Attackers deploy ransomware to encrypt a victim's various devices, including computers and servers. The attackers often demand a ransom before they will provide the key to decrypt the encrypted data. The goal is to persuade victims to pay to recover access to their important files, data, video and images.

Ransomware attacks against government agencies can shut down services, making it hard to get a permit, obtain a marriage license, or pay a tax bill, for instance.

Ransomware attacks aimed at large organisations and government agencies tend to generate the biggest headlines. But ransomware attacks can also happen to you.

How can you protect yourself against ransomware?

Here are some tips to protect your devices against ransomware attacks and the risk of having your data encrypted and inaccessible.

  • Install and use trusted security software on all your devices, including your mobile phone, and keep it up to date. It can help protect your devices against cyberattacks. 
  • Use a VPN that provides bank-grade encryption. Good online security products have them built-in and can empower you to live your digital life safely. 
  • Update your operating system and other software. This can patch security vulnerabilities.
  • Avoid reflexively opening email attachments. Why? Email is one of the principal methods for delivering ransomware. 
  • Be wary of any email attachment that advises you to enable macros to view its content. If you enable macros, macro malware could infect multiple files. 
  • Back up your data to an external hard drive. If you're the victim of a ransomware attack, you'll likely be able to restore your files once the malware has been cleaned up.
  • Consider using cloud services. This can help mitigate ransomware infection since many cloud services retain previous versions of files, allowing you to "roll back" to the unencrypted form.

What is encryption used for?

It's important to encrypt the messages, files, and data you send whenever they are personal, sensitive, or classified. For example, you don't want hackers to intercept your doctor's emails about an illness. You don't want criminals to access your financial information after logging into your online bank account. And you don't want scammers to snag that confidential report you are reviewing for your employer. So it's essential to encrypt all this data to keep it secret.

What is the strongest encryption method?

Several encryption methods are considered effective. Advanced Encryption Standard, better known as AES, is a popular choice among those who want to protect their data and messages. AES is trusted, effective, used worldwide, and might just be what stands between you and a cybercriminal attack.

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