You know your digital privacy and security are both incredibly important, but ensuring your data doesn’t end up in the wrong hands is sometimes easier said than done.

The world is filled with jargon. Internet protocols, private nodes, wide area networks, local area networks, virtual private networks — it can all be overwhelming, especially when you’re trying to figure out how to prevent a scammer from stealing your identity.

Here we’ll examine one term you’ll hear tossed around in discussions of digital privacy: encryption. We’ll take a look at what encryption is, how encryption works, and how encryption can keep you safer online. Let’s start with a quick definition.

Pro Tip: If you’re interested in taking a comprehensive approach to your online privacy, you may consider reading up on identity theft protection services. These products will keep an eye out for any suspicious activity that may indicate your identity has been stolen and raise the alarm before any real damage can be done.

What Is Encryption?

The basic, fundamental definition of encryption is the act of transforming understandable information into an unintelligible code that makes it impossible — or highly improbable — to crack.

These codes can be infinitely complex or as simple as a=1, b=2, c=3, etc. Using this particular encryption, the message 8-5-12-12-15 can be translated to “hello.” Since you know each number corresponds to a letter’s placement in the alphabet — in cryptology this would be known as the “key” — the nonsense string of numbers can be deciphered as something that has meaning.

FYI: The oldest cryptographic technique we know of was the Egyptian hieroglyph. These iconic symbols were actually part of a secret code known only to the scribes who used them to transmit methods on behalf of the pharaohs.

It gets a lot more complicated when we’re talking about digital processes, but the concept is still the same. When your data is encrypted online, it can be transmitted in such a way that onlookers couldn’t discern any meaning from it without the encryption key. The more complicated the encryption algorithm and the more difficult the key is to access, the more secure the encryption.

Now that you know the basic concept, let’s take a look at the types of encryption.

What Are the Types of Encryption?

There are two main types of encryption: symmetric and asymmetric.

  • Symmetric encryption: This is a widely used data-encryption technique in which the same secret key is used to encrypt and decrypt data. It’s the most common type of encryption, one you’ll most likely deal with on a daily basis. Your bank, for example, likely uses symmetric encryption when you access your account information.
  • Asymmetric encryption: While symmetric encryption uses one secret key to encrypt and decrypt data, asymmetric encryption uses mathematical linked private and public key pairings to encrypt and decrypt portions of sensitive data asynchronously. There are a few use cases of asymmetric encryption you may be familiar with, the most common of which is the Digital Signature Standard.

It’s interesting to understand how these processes work, but they almost always happen behind the scenes. What you really need to be concerned with is whether your data is encrypted.

How Do I Know If My Data Is Encrypted?

Depending on your operating system, the information on your hard drive may not be encrypted, which means someone could potentially get access to all the sensitive information on your computer if they gained access to your computer through your network or by physically swiping it. To encrypt your hard drive, follow these steps:

For Mac

  1. Click the Apple icon
  2. Click “System Preferences”
  3. Click “Security & Privacy”
  4. Click the “FileVault” tab
  5. Click “Turn on FileVault”

For Windows 10

  1. Sign in to Windows with an Administrator Account
  2. Click “Start”
  3. Click “Settings”
  4. Click “Privacy & Security”
  5. Click “Device Encryption”
  6. Click “On”

There you have it. Now if someone gains access to your local files, they won’t be able to read them without a key. This only protects your local data, though, which means the files and other things you have on your computer. Your traffic online is a different story.

How Do I Encrypt Online Data?

There are several ways to encrypt your data online, some of which are easier than others. Let’s take a look at some.

Use the Tor Browser

Tor is a free, open internet browser that helps you stay anonymous online. Without getting too deep into the weeds (or onion grass, if you will), the way the network is set up makes it so every site you visit is isolated and your history is permanently and irretrievably deleted once you exit the session.

Pro Tip: Some VPNs are designed to play well with the Tor browser. Check out our review of NordVPN for more information.

Use the HTTPS Protocol

A lot of websites ensure the data passing through them is encrypted using the new-ish HTTPS protocol, as opposed to the old, standard HTTP. A lot of sites have made the transition, but plenty haven’t. Look at the top of your browser to see whether “HTTPS” is at the front of the URL. If not, there are ways to use proxy servers to ensure HTTPS is used universally. We won’t get into that here, since it’s a little too complex for our purposes and the setup is dependent on your operating system and internet browser.

Use a VPN

The easiest way to ensure your internet traffic is hidden and encrypted is to use a reliable virtual private network. Not only will your data be indecipherable, but VPNs also help keep you anonymous by routing all your internet traffic through a private connection. The only drawback is that VPNs aren’t free, but there are plenty of affordable VPNs on the market that will get the job done right.

NordVPN on the app store

NordVPN on the app store

Which VPN Should I Choose?

Deciding which VPN is best for you depends entirely on how you want to use it. Are you looking to access geo-blocked media content? There are great VPNs for streaming. Looking to access different servers for that MMORPG? There are VPNs tailored to gamers’ needs. If you have a particular need, there’s definitely a VPN out there for you.

We recommend starting with our list of the best VPN services. You’ll find a great roundup of some of the best companies we’ve reviewed. At the end of the day, you’ll want a VPN that is reliable, easy to use, and keeps you safe. From where we’re sitting, you won’t go wrong with any on that list.