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Asymmetric vs. Symmetric Key Encryption Made Simple

The virtual world—while innovative and ever-growing—is also filled with opportunities for rogue individuals to threaten the integrity of others’ valuable data. Even though the cybersecurity industry is growing, there are still risks present.

When your business operates online (whether by running e-commerce, developing your own app, or just by interacting with customers over social media), you have to take appropriate measures to safeguard sensitive information from hackers and other threats.

That’s where encryption comes into play. Let’s cover the basics of encryption, the different forms of encryption (and how best to use them), as well as how to decide what kind is right for you and your business.

What does encryption mean? 

Encryption is a means of protecting data by translating information into ciphertext and using a key to decipher that text. By turning data into ciphertext that’s random and incomprehensible without the corresponding key, you can safeguard your data and keep outsiders from accessing it. Only those with the key will be able to access the encrypted data.

Encryption is necessary for a wide variety of reasons:

  • Protect data from unauthorized access. If someone doesn’t have the right key, they won’t be able to access the data. This protects everything from confidential company documents to private customer information.
  • Securely share files through authentication. You can allow customers and employees to access secure data through identify authentication measures and permission settings.
  • Defend against tampering and theft. Even if a hacker is able to physically obtain a smartphone or computer, encryption and authentication measures ensure they won’t be able to see the data without the right key.
  • Comply with industry regulations. Many industrial organizations and government agencies require companies who handle sensitive data to enact certain safeguards. Encryption is a key part of meeting those regulations.

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 disguising data and allowing decryption. Let’s discuss the differences between the two, along with some potential use cases.

Symmetric Encryption

Symmetric encryption is the simplest, most straightforward form of encryption. It involves using a single secret key to encode and decode information. There are many different symmetric algorithms out there.

This type of encryption usually consists of strings of random letters or numbers that obscure a message’s plain text. While there are many algorithms to choose from, ‘AES’ is widely accepted and used for the majority of applications—especially with 128, 192, or 256-bit keys.

Here are some examples of symmetric encryption use cases:

  • Banking. Symmetric encryption is common in the banking and financial industries where large amounts of customer data need to be shielded, but doesn’t necessarily need to pass through very many hands on a day-to-day basis. This type of encryption is used for everything from identity verification for banking apps to prevent the leaks of personal identifying information during card transactions.
  • Data storage. Similar to banking applications, symmetric encryption is best for data stored on a personal device like a phone or computer. Because this data doesn’t need to be transferred very often (or even at all), a simple private key is enough to keep it secure.

Symmetric encryption requires the key holder to share a key with another party in order to grant access to encrypted data. This is sometimes considered a disadvantage of symmetric encryption (particularly for very sensitive data)—and part of the reason why asymmetric encryption was developed as a solution.

Asymmetric Encryption 

Asymmetric 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 plaintext messages and is more accessible, whereas the private key is what’s used to decrypt it and only obtained by the recipient of the information.

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

Common use cases include: 

  • Digital signatures. Digital signatures are used across industries to authenticate user identities and move document signing online.
  • Cryptocurrency. Many cryptocurrencies use asymmetric encryption when conducting transactions between users.

There are some issues when it comes to scaling asymmetric encryption as this method tends to be slower and use more resources than symmetric encryption.

Compare & Contrast: Asymmetric vs. Symmetric Key Encryption

Each form of encryption offers its own benefits and drawbacks. Which option that works best for you will depend on your specific security needs, your industry, and the scale at which you’re operating. In order to take advantage of each form of encryption, it’s common to employ a combination of both types.

Symmetric Encryption Pros & Cons

Here are some pros of symmetric encryption:

  • Simple & easy to set up
  • Fast & uses fewer resources
  • Efficient for large quantities of data
  • Strong against brute force attacks

And here are some drawbacks:

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

Asymmetric Encryption Pros & Cons

Here are some pros of asymmetric data:

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

Here are some drawbacks of asymmetric encryption:

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

Which is right for you?

Ensuring that your data is well-secured is critical when running a business. Whether you’re protecting your trade secrets or safeguarding your customers’ personal data, there’s a data encryption solution out there that fits your needs.
But encryption isn’t a one-size-fits-all option—and that’s where REALSEC comes in. We’re a cybersecurity firm here to help enterprises across industries find specialized encryption solutions. To learn more about encryption or to discuss what works best for your business, contact the REALSEC team today.