When you choose to back up your data online, you agree to store some of your most sensitive data inside data centers, from your tax returns to your family photos. Thankfully, your data is encrypted with a special key so that only you can access it. But how does encryption work, and how can you be sure that your data is safe?
On your computer at home, your data is stored in such a way that you can access it at any time. Your Word documents, Excel spreadsheet, email and more are accessible to anyone sitting in front of your computer. When you browse your documents or pictures folder, you can see and access all of your personal files. Increasingly, however, the only copy of your data isn’t simply on your computer but also on an external hard drive and online cloud storage service. Sure, you can lock up your backup hard drives in a safe deposit box and be guaranteed some degree of security. But what about when you’re storing your data online? Of course you have a password set up, but what does that password do?
Your files in a cloud-based online storage system are locked away just like your files in a safe deposit box. Actually, they’re locked up better. In order to get into your safe deposit box you need to have your key. To access your files online you also need one thing: your password. So how can files online be more secure? Encryption is the answer.
The best way to think about encryption is to imagine a safe. Not an ordinary safe, however, but one with hundreds, even thousands of dials. In order to get into this safe, every single dial has to be turned to the exact number. Unless each dial is correct, your data is perfectly safe behind the walls of the data center in which it’s being stored.
Data encryption means that your storage on a server is scrambled. Without the correct password, your files are completely unreadable. If you were to open an encrypted copy of a document or a photograph, the contents would appear as though they were written in an alien language. It is impossible to decipher any of the original content in an encrypted file because no trace of the original document is left. In the real world, the contents of your safe deposit box aren’t encrypted: anyone can recognize and read a birth certificate or a mortgage agreement. But online, even if someone could see inside your encrypted data, they’d still need the key to understand what it was. A key is essential to decoding data on a computer, and that key is your password.
When you input your password, the data inside the encrypted file suddenly becomes accessible. You can see the photo of your grandkids or read that business proposal you had saved. Without the password, the information is meaningless.
In fact, the number one priority of any company that stores user files is the integrity of the data. Specialists in the field that I’ve spoken with have told me that more than profit, keeping people’s data safe is their number one priority. If even one customer’s data is accessed, it could be a PR disaster. So companies that store your file don’t just encrypt them, they encrypt them with the strongest possible methods available, the kind of technology that spies from even a decade ago would be drooling over. A modern encryption key is thousands of bits strong, which translates into hundreds of thousands of locks, dials and keys that have to be arranged perfectly in order to allow access to your data.
All of this has huge implications for people using online storage services. While most cloud backups have strict requirements on how and when your data is accessed, as well as tracking all logins to every account to try and determine which are suspicious, ultimately the burden rests on you. Always remember to pick a strong password when you sign up for cloud services, one that you don’t use for any other service and is impenetrable from hacking or guessing. Then you can rest assured that only you have access to your encrypted files.