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Many times, an organization needs to transmit information over the Internet or transfer it on external media such as a CD or flash drive. In these cases, even with proper authentication and access control, it is possible for an unauthorized person to get access to the data. Encryption is a process of encoding data upon its transmission or storage so that only authorized individuals can read it. This encoding is accomplished by a computer program, which encodes the plain text that needs to be transmitted; then the recipient receives the cipher text and decodes it (decryption). In order for this to work, the sender and receiver need to agree on the method of encoding so that both parties can communicate properly. Both parties share the encryption key, enabling them to encode and decode each other’s messages. This is called symmetric key encryption. This type of encryption is problematic because the key is available in two different places.
An alternative to symmetric key encryption is public key encryption. In public key encryption, two keys are used: a public key and a private key. To send an encrypted message, you obtain the public key, encode the message, and send it. The recipient then uses the private key to decode it. The public key can be given to anyone who wishes to send the recipient a message. Each user simply needs one private key and one public key in order to secure messages. The private key is necessary in order to decrypt something sent with the public key.
Sidebar: Password Security
So why is using just a simple user ID/password not considered a secure method of authentication? It turns out that this single-factor authentication is extremely easy to compromise. Good password policies must be put in place in order to ensure that passwords cannot be compromised. Below are some of the more common policies that organizations should put in place.
- Require complex passwords. One reason passwords are compromised is that they can be easily guessed. A recent study found that the top three passwords people used in 2012 were password, 123456 and 12345678. A password should not be simple, or a word that can be found in a dictionary. One of the first things a hacker will do is try to crack a password by testing every term in the dictionary! Instead, a good password policy is one that requires the use of a minimum of eight characters, and at least one upper-case letter, one special character, and one number.
- Change passwords regularly. It is essential that users change their passwords on a regular basis. Users should change their passwords every sixty to ninety days, ensuring that any passwords that might have been stolen or guessed will not be able to be used against the company.
- Train employees not to give away passwords. One of the primary methods that is used to steal passwords is to simply figure them out by asking the users or administrators. Pretexting occurs when an attacker calls a helpdesk or security administrator and pretends to be a particular authorized user having trouble logging in. Then, by providing some personal information about the authorized user, the attacker convinces the security person to reset the password and tell him what it is. Another way that employees may be tricked into giving away passwords is through e-mail phishing. Phishing occurs when a user receives an e-mail that looks as if it is from a trusted source, such as their bank, or their employer. In the e-mail, the user is asked to click a link and log in to a website that mimics the genuine website and enter their ID and password, which are then captured by the attacker.