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What is End-to-End Encryption, and How Does it Work?

Lukas Grigas
Cybersecurity Content Writer

Today, end-to-end encryption is a hot topic. Over the past few years, major communication apps such as Zoom and social media platforms such as Facebook have introduced end-to-end encryption to their services to ensure secure communications. But what exactly is end-to-end encryption? How does it work, and why is it so important? Well, today, we're taking a deep dive into all things end-to-end encryption.

What is end-to-end encryption (E2EE)?

Whenever you send a text message, an email, or other type of private data over the internet, all that information is vulnerable to cyber threats, including theft. Your data passes through servers, routers, and other network devices, which all can be intercepted by a bad actor looking to steal that information. End-to-end encryption (E2EE) comes into play to ensure the security of your data in transit.

Essentially, end-to-end encryption is a method of scrambling data so that it can only be read on two ends — by the sender and the recipient. A message protected with E2EE is unreadable to any outside party, even if that party can compromise and intercept communications. When E2EE is applied, it turns the message's plaintext into ciphertext, which can only be decrypted with the recipient's key. Essentially, end-to-end encryption ensures that two parties can communicate securely over the internet.

The security behind end-to-end encryption comes from the creation of a public-private key pair. This process, known as asymmetric cryptography, uses separate cryptographic keys for encrypting and decrypting the data. Public keys are primarily used to encrypt data, while private keys are only available to the owner and are used to decrypt the data.

How does end-to-end encryption work?

End-to-end encryption is considered asymmetric encryption, also referred to as public-key cryptography. Asymmetric encryption encrypts and decrypts data using two cryptographic keys: public and private keys. The public key is used to encrypt the data and the private key to decrypt. As the name suggests, the private key is designed to remain private so only the targeted recipient would be able to decipher the data.

End-to-end encryption example applications

End-to-end encryption has a variety of use cases, all of which ensure the security of data during communication or storage. Here are some of the most common applications of end-to-end encryption.

Secure communications

Messaging apps such as Whatsapp, Telegram, or Signal use end-to-end encryption to ensure private communication between their users. The same can be said about email communications.

Data storage

Various data storage devices incorporate encryption to ensure the utmost security of stored data. Usually, when we talk about encryption on a device level, we talk about encryption at rest, which means that the data is encrypted on the device and not in transit.

Password management

Password managers such as NordPass employ end-to-end encryption to ensure the security of all the passwords you store in the vault. At NordPass, we use zero-knowledge encryption, ensuring that only the user can access their vault.

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Advantages and challenges of end-to-end encryption

As with any technology, end-to-end encryption has its advantages and disadvantages that must be considered.

Advantages

  • No one except the sender and the recipient, who have the appropriate public and private keys, can view the contents of a message. For example, if the email service provider happens to be hacked, cybercriminals will not be able to decrypt the data within because they will lack the decryption key.

  • Protects against tampering with encrypted messages. End-to-end encrypted messages can't be altered or edited in any way. If a third party makes alterations, the receiver of the messages is notified.

  • Helps with data privacy, security regulations, and compliance. Today almost all industries are limited by regulatory compliance, which means that organizations must conform to specific security standards. Thanks to E2EE, businesses can ensure the security of their communications.

Challenges

  • Metadata, which includes information about the message, such as date, participants, and the time it was sent, remains visible to the public. Even though metadata does not contain the contents of the message, it could provide directions for bad actors looking to intercept the communications.

  • Endpoints can be compromised. If an endpoint is compromised, an attacker can have a full view of the communications stream before the message is even encrypted. Compromised endpoints are infamous for being essential to a man-in-the-middle attack.

  • Too much privacy. Yes, you've read that right. Sometimes there can be too much privacy, or at least that is the view of law enforcement agencies. Governments and other regulatory bodies often express concerns about E2EE, noting that it can protect people engaged in illegal activities.

Can end-to-end encryption be hacked

Unfortunately, everything, including end-to-end encryption, can be hacked. It is just a matter of time. The great thing about end-to-end encryption is that even though it can be hacked, it would take hundreds if not thousands of years to do so. Instead of dedicating centuries' worth of resources, hackers prefer to steal encryption keys or intercept data before encryption or after decryption.

End-to-end encryption and NordPass Business

End-to-end encryption is an integral part of NordPass Business. Security is at the forefront of everything we do. It is encryption that ensures no sensitive data is exposed at any point. Our password manager for business is purpose-built to encrypt data locally and only then upload it to the cloud. NordPass employees cannot view or access your items — only you can. Thanks to E2EE, even if your data ends up in the wrong hands, the bad actors trying to access it will see nothing but gibberish.

Bottom line

End-to-end encryption is the central feature of what makes secure communications online possible. It makes us feel more confident and safe whenever we engage in an online conversation or send a few files over email. Despite its drawbacks, E2EE is currently the most secure way to send and receive data. As we continue to move more of our lives online, encryption will only become a more significant concern.

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