Data, by default, is coded in a readable format known as plaintext. When transmitted over a network, plaintext is vulnerable to unauthorized and potentially malicious access. The encryption mechanism is a digital coding system dedicated to preserving the confidentiality of data. It is used for encoding plaintext data into a protected and unreadable format.
Encryption technology commonly relies on a standardized algorithm called a cipher to transform original plaintext data into encrypted data, referred to as ciphertext. Access to ciphertext does not divulge the original plaintext data, apart from some forms of metadata, such as message length and creation date. When encryption is applied to plaintext data, the data is paired with a string of characters called an encryption key. The encryption key is used to decrypt the ciphertext back into its original plaintext format.
The encryption mechanism can help counter the traffic eavesdropping, malicious intermediary, insufficient authorization, and overlapping trust boundaries security threats. For example, malicious service agents that attempt traffic eavesdropping are unable to decrypt messages in transit if they do not have the encryption key (Figure 1).
Figure 1 - A malicious service agent is unable to retrieve data from an encrypted message. The retrieval attempt may furthermore be revealed to the cloud service consumer. (Note the use of the lock symbol to indicate that a security mechanism has been applied to the message contents.)
There are two common forms of encryption, known as symmetric encryption and asymmetric encryption.
Symmetric encryption uses the same key for both encryption and decryption, both of which are performed by authorized parties that use the one shared key. Also known as secret key cryptography, messages that are encrypted with a specific key can be decrypted by only that same key. Parties that rightfully decrypt the data are provided with evidence that the original encryption was performed by parties that rightfully possess the key.
Note that symmetrical encryption does not have the characteristic of non-repudiation, since determining exactly which party performed the message encryption or decryption is not possible if more than one party is in possession of the key.
Asymmetric encryption relied on the use of two different keys, namely a private key and a public key. With asymmetric encryption (which is also referred to as public key cryptography), the private key is known only to its owner while the public key is commonly available. A document that was encrypted with a private key can only be correctly decrypted with the corresponding public key. Conversely, a document that was encrypted with a public key can be decrypted only using its private key counterpart. As a result of two different keys being used instead of just the one, asymmetric encryption is almost always computationally slower than symmetric encryption.
As every asymmetrically encrypted message has its own private-public key pair, messages that were encrypted with a private key can be correctly decrypted by any party with the corresponding public key. This method of encryption does not offer any confidentiality protection, even though successful decryption proves that the text was encrypted by the rightful public key owner. Private key encryption therefore offers integrity protection in addition to authenticity and non-repudiation. A message that was encrypted with a public key can only be decrypted by the rightful private key owner, which provides confidentiality protection. However, any party that has the public key can generate the ciphertext, meaning this method provides neither message integrity nor authenticity protection due to the communal nature of the public key.