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What is File Encryption?

File encryption keeps data safe — even when hackers get to it. Here’s how file encryption maintains a base level of security while preparing organizations for developing threats.

In today’s security climate, exposed data is a surefire way to compromise the integrity and confidentiality of your entire enterprise. The best way to ensure that data is safe even in the event of a breach is to ensure that files are always encrypted. Think of it this way: a hacker could break into a healthcare facility and reach a file where patient medical documents are stored. If the files are encrypted, the hacker won’t be able to do much with this indecipherable data and will feel inclined to move on to an easier target.

However, how file encryption is performed determines the degree of security it can provide. In this guide, we’ll explore what file encryption consists of, when data is most vulnerable, how to encrypt a file, and what types of file encryption should be used for optimal data protection.


What is File Encryption?
What is File Encryption Used For?
Which Files Do You Need To Encrypt
When Should Files Be Encrypted
How to Encrypt a File
The Future of File Encryption
SSH Makes Future-Proof File Encryption Easy

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What is File Encryption?

File encryption transforms data into code that only intended recipients can decipher, preventing unauthorized users from being able to access, view, and understand sensitive information. It often relies on public key cryptography, where key pairs are generated by particular mathematical algorithms that are hard to crack. These key pairs are issued only to predetermined recipients and senders and no one else, forming a lock-and-key mechanism that encrypts and decrypts data in transit, in use, and at rest.

What is File Encryption Used For?

Businesses, organizations, enterprises, and agencies all have data in need of safeguarding. From a healthcare facility updating a patient’s medical record to a national bank interacting with consumer financial data — a wide range of personal information needs to be shielded from the public eye and must only be accessible to administrators with restricted privileged access.

With data breaches and identity theft on the rise, encrypting files not only means protecting an organization’s reputation and trustworthiness — it means protecting people and their valuable assets.

File encryption is also a key pillar of cybersecurity, with national and global policies requiring its use. The California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018 (CCPA), the US’s Healthcare Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and Canada’s Federal Information Processing Standards (FIPS) are just a few of many regulations setting standards and guidelines for sufficient file encryption.

Which Files Do You Need To Encrypt?

All confidential or sensitive files should be encrypted at all times, although specific data types warrant extra care and caution. These include:

  • Business Operations Data: Files containing client contracts, financial transactions, payment histories, and customer negotiations should be kept secret. Otherwise, lax data security measures can compromise client relationships and cost an enterprise its brand and business. 
  • Legal Data: By law, all legal data surrounding ongoing proceedings must be encrypted and protected in all its states, to prevent the case’s outcome from being jeopardized. Moreover, all communications with lawyers, paralegals, business partners, and all other parties to a case must be protected.
  • Human Resources Data: Employers possess a lot of personal data about their employees, including their wage and banking accounts, contractual obligations, contact information, social security numbers, medical documentation, and more. This diverse array of data makes companies a prime target for hackers and malicious internal actors looking to exploit financial and identity-based assets.

Bear in mind that all applications that facilitate the sharing, editing, and storage of this data should be closely monitored and adequately fortified with encryption features for end-to-end protection.

When Should Files Be Encrypted? 

It also matters when data is encrypted and, ideally, it should be encrypted at all times. Leaving data in plain, readable text, even for a few moments, is often just enough time for an adversary to wrongfully obtain private data. As a result, end-to-end encryption should be prioritized — this means data should be encrypted in transit, in use, and at rest. This is also mandated by the US Government.

Data in Transit

Data in this state is on the move. It’s being shared, sent, and transferred back and forth between users and devices. Whether through email communications, video chat platforms, or social media channels, unencrypted data can easily fall into the wrong hands when traveling across the internet.

Perimeter-based security measures like firewalls and VPNs help maintain data security and user anonymity on networks. However, adopting additional security solutions for well-rounded coverage is recommended — for example, privileged access management (PAM) software and data loss prevention (DLP) systems that restrict access to sensitive material, automate monitoring tasks, and deploy vulnerability notifications.

Data in Use

Data being manipulated or accessed in real-time is highly vulnerable because it’s already in an instantly usable state. For example, let’s say a customer is accessing their financial information through a banking app on their mobile device. Here, the customer is already logged in, with their routing number, transaction history, and balance in clear sight.

If a hacker were to breach this account in this state, they’d be able to act with the same privileges as the account owner, essentially posing as them as they illegally withdraw, send, and spend money as they please.

One of the greatest threats to data in use is human error, which makes automated encryption solutions crucial. In today’s hybrid on-premises and cloud work environments, such encryption must also be an interoperable process, translating and moving with data as it’s used in different contexts and applications.

Data at Rest

Most organizations have a secure way of archiving confidential files so they are incredibly challenging to access without the proper credentials. However, in doing this, data is left in plain sight behind a locked door that hackers and internal adversaries can learn to bypass.

To keep files irretrievable and incomprehensible, it’s best to encrypt them at rest so that, should a breach occur, data is not lost or stolen. In this case, identity access management (IAM) systems and strict privileged access policies are key to warding off cybercriminals harnessing stolen credentials to access private files.

How to Encrypt a File?

As mentioned, encryption typically uses public key cryptography, but there are several types to be aware of, as they hold unique benefits for differing use cases. The first is asymmetric cryptography, which consists of public and private keys assigned to users for secure and encrypted interaction. Public keys are used to encrypt files, while private keys, which differ per user, decrypt files explicitly intended for them. Asymmetric encryption is commonly used for activity over public networks and internet connections, such as a user sharing a picture with friends on an instant messaging platform like WhatsApp.

On the other hand, symmetric encryption uses just one private key to encrypt and decrypt data that’s exchanged between users. This creates a vulnerability, as a stolen private key means quick and painless access to a trove of sensitive data. Nonetheless, symmetric encryption is helpful when a vast quantity of information has to be encrypted at once, such as when organizations transfer all their data from one software application or device to another.

The type of algorithm used to encrypt files varies according to software program, but widely-used methods include:

  • PGP and OpenPGP: PGP stands for “pretty good privacy” and was developed in the 1990s by Phil Zimmermann as one of the earliest approaches to encrypted communication. It functions using asymmetric cryptography. Due to patent rights, PGP is only available through licensing with Symantec. To make PGP more widely accessible, Zimmermann released its source code, OpenPGP, for all organizations to use and apply to develop their own encryption system.
  • Secure Shell Protocol (SSH): SSH is known as the ssh-keygen program in its open-source format. It helps connect SSH clients to SSH servers through both asymmetric and symmetric cryptography. Asymmetric cryptography is used for initial identification and connection setup, whereas symmetric cryptography is used to sustain and secure ongoing communications thereafter. SSH supports several popular algorithms, including RSA, DSA, ECDSA, and ED25519.
  • ZIP with Advanced Encryption Standard (AES): Relying instead on symmetric encryption, ZIP with AES compresses and encrypts files using the substitution permutation network (SPN) algorithm. Officially mandated by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), SPN generates keys that are a minimum of 128 bits long so that adversaries using brute force will have to go through an impossible amount of combinations — potentially taking million of years to crack. ZIP with AES provides one of the strongest encryption methods to date.

The Future of File Encryption

Aside from significantly increased security, there are plenty of other major benefits of passwordless and keyless authentication. These include:

  • Increased usability. When static credentials are out of the picture, users can access the right information without jumping through hoops. Traditional password-based authentication has required users to create complex passwords, then store them somewhere “safe” and remember them when it comes time to log in. Additionally, plenty of enterprises require users to manually rotate passwords or keys periodically. Passwordless and keyless authentication removes the burden of management, so users can access the right data without obstacles. 
  • Cost-effective operations: Password and key management is an expensive endeavor for IT teams. To manage passwords for a large organization, an entire team of admins may be necessary to answer customer questions, help reset passwords, and rotate and retire passwords. This process can be time-consuming and inefficient compared to a passwordless approach. Implementing passwordless authentication allows your enterprise to reduce IT management costs by avoiding the time-consuming process of password management. The same applies to key management with one fundamental difference — keys are notoriously difficult to find. In fact, most Privileged Access Management (PAM) solutions are not equipped to handle keys properly, so many keys are going undetected and unmanaged.
  • Better security: Passwordless and keyless authentication have the potential to be a much more secure option than permanent credential-based access control. Passwords and keys have the potential to fall into the wrong hands — no matter how often they are rotated. When passwordless and keyless authentication is adopted, there is little doubt that the right user is accessing the right information.

SSH Makes Future-Proof File Encryption

As pioneers in secure communications, SSH (the company) was founded to protect data in all its forms and continues to do so for leading organizations worldwide. We understand that cybersecurity needs are constantly changing, challenging us to forge a new path toward a safer future. SSH’s library of best-in-class management tools seamlessly migrate existing infrastructures to robust and future-proof systems, from credential-less authentication to Zero Trust frameworks and quantum-proof encryption.Whether your organization needs more secure email communication, identity management, and privileged access, SSH has what you need. Reach out to us today to learn how our encryption tools and services can take your business’ data security to the next level.