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What is End-to-End Encryption? How it Works and Why we need it?

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13th Aug, 2022
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What is End-to-End Encryption? How it Works and Why we need it?

Social networking sites extend their communication portals to be as secure for users as possible. The emergence of network vulnerabilities amid social networking sites is inviting countless cyberattacks like snooping, stealing and disrupting databases. Also, third-party applications sometimes intervene to steal personal data, using the same for malicious purposes. The emergence of security issues following new digital technologies is a serious concern that End-to-End encryption in cyber security can address. 

To maintain a secure, private communication channel, social networking sites leverage end-to-end encryption services, which promotes a more confidential environment for message exchange. The modern communication system is different from transmitting ‘clear text’, which is more than likely to get snooped on. But what exactly is End-to-End encryption, and how does it protect our system while transmitting messages? Let’s find out!

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What is End-to-End Encryption?

End-to-End encryption is a service extending secure communication method which applies encryption on the messages sent by a system only to be decrypted once it reaches the recipient. End-to-End encryption protects data from third-party services, internet service providers, application providers, hackers, and the information from the sender’s side is only deciphered once it reaches the intended system. 

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Although End-to-End encryption is preferable by various social communication channels due to its privacy, many organisations have faced controversy following its usage. As the service makes it difficult to share information with other organisations, malicious activities can also conspire on these portals without a trace. Data sent through End-to-End encryption providing channels is secured compared to data sent through SMS or non E2EE channels. 

How does End-to-End encryption work?

End-to-End encryption scrambles messages using an algorithm that makes it difficult to understand the text by anyone other than the intended recipient. Just like its name suggests, only the two ends of the participating communication system can access the encrypted message generated with two keys- a public key and a private key. The public key can be shared by anyone who wishes to send you an encrypted message, but the private key is only available at your end, which allows you to decipher the message and read it. 

End-to-End Encryption Protects Against

End-to-End encryption grants protection against a few of these major threats.

  • Unauthorised access:  End-to-End encryption prevents unauthorised access with its restriction on delivering the key to the recipient and sender. Other than these two, no one has access to encrypted messages. Therefore, hackers, third-party apps or other snoopers are not capable of breaking through the system.  
  • Data Tampering: Data tampering refers to any malicious entity gaining access to a device to get into the space and disrupt the containing data. They either steal or destroy data, but an End-to-End encryption service prevents them from accessing any data, completely eradicating this problem on such social media platforms. 

End-to-End Encryption Does Not Protect Against

End-to-End encryption has its share of limitations as well. These are some of the potential weaker points of the service, where the framework cannot extend security.

  • Visible metadata: End-to-End encryption is excellent to protect messages. However, End-to-End encryption does not protect the message’s metadata, which easily conveys details such as the participants and time details of the text. 
  • Compromised endpoints: Like man-in-the-middle-attacks, compromised endpoints might lead any malicious entities to easily access your keys and sneak into the conversation to steal information or disrupt the system.

How is it different from other encryption methods?

End-to-End encryption service is different from other encryption services due to its endpoints, where both communication points receive a key- one private and the other public. These keys enable only the sender and receiver to decipher the encrypted message. Another encryption technique called Symmetric Key Encryption also extends encryption but only grants a single key. Only a single key, also known as the secret key, is used to both encrypt and decrypt the information sent through the message.

Benefits of End-to-End Encryption

End-to-End encryption services are being adopted widely due to various benefits from their implementation. Social media applications are leading the race, with most applications enabling End-to-End services through their communication channel. 

Let’s find out some of these benefits.

  • Encryption: The most apparent and significant aspect of this service is End-to-End encryption, which only enables the people taking part in the conversation to receive the private key for encrypted messages. 
  • Protection from monitoring: Often, host applications, as well as third-party applications, snoops in private conversations to use the retrieved information for marketing tactics and more. End-to-End encryption prevents the chances of any third-person prying with the lack of ‘clear text’ on the platform.
  • Tamper-proof: Many industries require top-notch security measures to protect sharing of confidential information and related details. End-to-End encryption, being completely secure, is also tamper-proof, which forbids any malicious entity to break through the system and have unauthorised access to the received messages.

Disadvantages of End-to-End Encryption

The rising conflicts around End-to-End encryption services are caused by various discrepancies and disadvantages that accompany the usage of End-to-End encryption services. Let’s take a look at some of these disadvantages. 

  • Lack of contextual services: Contextual services refer to perceiving user behaviour and details to automatically generate related features such as calendar invites, text history, etc. End-to-End encryption service makes it difficult for applications to read the details and provide contextual services. 
  • Potential threats: End-to-End encryption is entirely encrypted, which is good news and a bad one. As there are no eyes to monitor what is happening through a conversation, illicit details and activities can conspire within these encryptions. Furthermore, monitoring entities may not have any idea as long as the details stay inside the inbox.
  • Uncertain security: While End-to-End encryption encrypts the data away from the eyes of service providers, third-party applications and the government, it does not entirely ensure security as the metadata is still available to be seen through the device. 

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Conclusion

Besides the various advantages and limitations of using End-to-End encryption services, many companies are readily incorporating it in their communication channel. However, it is a subject of controversy among governments of various nations. While the service is enjoying a bright present as major companies are adopting End-to-End encryption, the service is yet to gain mass acceptance globally. 

Profile

Pavan Vadapalli

Blog Author
Director of Engineering @ upGrad. Motivated to leverage technology to solve problems. Seasoned leader for startups and fast moving orgs. Working on solving problems of scale and long term technology strategy.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1What is the difference between Encryption and End-to-End Encryption?

Encryption or the regularly used TLS provides encryption between users and service providers. Meanwhile, End-to-End encryption works directly among users who are present at two ends of the system. If you text a person through the system, the text reaches them in an encrypted form and decrypts only after reaching their system.

2How is encryption done?

Encryption follows an algorithm that encrypts the sent data and a key. The encrypted data, popularly known as ciphertext, is unreadable. The recipient uses the key to decrypt the ciphertext to understand the sent information. Encryption protects the confidentiality of data by sending a ciphered text.

3Can encryption data be hacked?

Yes. Encryption methods are safe, but cyber services are always at risk of getting hacked through hidden system vulnerabilities. If the hacker has enough resources and knowledge of the system, they can steal encryption keys and break into the database to snoop on or steal data. Again, though, the resources and skills required for that need to be highly sophisticated.

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