Imagine that you need to send some top-secret files to a friend in another country. You do not trust the postal system and can only send the documents through a travel agent.
But you also do not want the agent or any other person to be able to access the files. So, you lock them in a special briefcase that only opens through a complex unlocking pattern.
Only you and your friend know the correct unlock pattern to open the briefcase and read the files. This communication technique is called end-to-end encryption.
In essence, end-to-end encryption (or E2EE) is a secure communication protocol that ensures that only the sender and receiver of a message can read or interpret it.
How does end-to-end encryption work?
It uses a public (or encryption) key and a private (or decryption) key. Both keys are stored on the endpoints (both ends of the communication channel).
Anyone can use the public key to code and send a message. But only the intended receiver holds the private key to decode it into readable text.
Many messaging apps use a third-party service provider (a middleman) to send data from the sender to the receiver.
Often, the service provider stores the data and may read or modify it for its own purpose. While this may be legal, it is not safe in situations that demand utmost privacy.
End-to-end encryption prevents this by wrapping the data in code that only the receiver can decode or interpret.
How does E2EE differ from password-protected encryption?
End-to-end encryption uses an asymmetric approach because it uses two keys. Therefore, only the endpoints (the sender and receiver) can decode and read the message.
Similarly, symmetric key encryption (or single-key encryption) offers an uninterrupted security chain from sender to receiver. But it only uses one key to encrypt the message.
The key may be a password, code, or string of randomly generated numbers, which the receiver uses to decode the message.
The key may be complex and make the message look meaningless to a third party. But, it can be hijacked, decoded and read if someone else apart from the receiver knows the key.
How is end-to-end encryption useful?
End-to-end encryption is particularly useful when privacy is a top priority. It helps to protect sensitive data (such as medical records, financial reports, business files, and government-classified files) from hackers.
Failure to secure these data could cause significant consequences such as financial losses, loss of customer trust, reputational damage, regulatory fines, lawsuits, or even imprisonment.
End-to-end encryption also helps individuals and companies control user access. That means only a few trusted people in the organization can access stored data.
Many companies use a centralised key management system to provide clearance tiers to strictly control who has access to specific data in their databases.
In essence, end-to-end encryption provides the following benefits:
- Safe data transfer
End-to-end encryption relies on public-key cryptography that keeps private keys on endpoint devices. Only the intended receiver holds the private key and can decode and read an encrypted message.
The receiver already has the private key, so the end-to-end encryption process does not send it to him. If anyone changes or manipulates the public key, it renders the encrypted message invalid.
- Data privacy regulation compliance
Data privacy laws that require encryption-level data protection bind several companies. End-to-end encryption makes data unreadable, and this helps businesses comply with privacy laws.
What are the challenges with using end-to-end encryption
- It only provides endpoint security.
End-to-end encryption only encrypts data between the endpoints. So, companies must use a separate security system to protect data after it passes through the endpoint.
- Endpoints are often prone to man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks.
Man-in-the-middle attacks happen when hackers insert themselves between two endpoints and pass themselves off as the intended receiver.
They can then switch decryption keys, divert the message and then send it on to the correct destination without being noticed.
- Backdoors Vulnerabilities
Some companies intentionally or intentionally create a backdoor in the code of their encryption system. Hackers can use these backdoors to bypass the security protocol and steal data.
Finally, here’s what you should know …
End-to-end encryption is probably one of the safest ways for companies to maintain client data privacy. Its main advantage is that no third party can view messages sent between users.
Also, only the sender and receiver hold the keys to encrypt and decrypt the message. Any attempt to change the message or steal the key often fails, except in a few cases.
There are several encryption techniques, but like with other technologies, some are more efficient than others. So, each company needs to decide the best data security solution to use.