How Does Encryption Protect Cloud Storage User Data?

The idea of cloud storage might bring to mind images of huge data centers and servers crammed with hard drives and pictures of data.

But, these days, most people are likely to be storing their data on the cloud. The current status of encryption largely depends on the type of service.

Some companies like Google and Apple iCloud provide encryption through their services’ documents or even through mobile phones’ built-in security features.

For example, Google’s Gmail service uses TLS encryption, and while it is difficult for anyone to read the message when it’s transmitting, but it doesn’t mean the service provider itself cannot read them once it reaches its destination.

[Off record]- And we all do know that Google can and does read your email.

Most of the cloud storage services, including Dropbox, Amazon S3, and Microsoft OneDrive use similar features that encrypt data before it is sent to the cloud provider.

So, how does encryption work on these services?

How can a user really be sure that his or her data is being stored securely in the cloud even with the most secure cloud storage?

What is Encryption, and How Does It Work?

What is Encryption

To put it simply, encryption is the process of scrambling data into a format that is difficult to decipher.

The very purpose of encryption is to ensure privacy.

Most people who find themselves on the Internet have their personal information stored on various sites, such as Facebook or Twitter.

Encryption is a method of storing and transmitting data in a way that only authorized users can access and read the information.

The encryption process includes two parts:

Part A:

An encryption key (or “key” for short) is a piece of a special code number that is used to encrypt, or scramble, the data so that it becomes unreadable. The encryption key is also the piece of information needed to decode the data.

Part B:

The decryption key is the other half of this special code number. The decryption key is used to decode or unscramble the data sent in an encrypted format. This final “clear text” can then be read by authorized users.

Encryption keys are created using a mathematical algorithm, using a secret password called a key-encrypting key (or “key” for short).

The key itself is not stored anywhere. It is created right after the data is encrypted.

The encryption key only needs to be kept by the cloud service provider and will be encrypted all over again with a different password before being sent to users’ endpoints.

The purpose of the encryption key is to ensure that only authorized users can access or read data stored in the cloud, especially if those users are not allowed to know each other’s encryption keys, like MEGA cloud storage.

How Does Encryption Protect Cloud Storage User Data?

The encryption algorithm used to encrypt and decrypt information depends on the type of service.

Most cloud storage services use similar encryption algorithms, such as AES 256-bit encryption.

These algorithms are considered to be “hacker-proof” because they include a built-in protection mechanism that makes it nearly impossible for unauthorized users to read encrypted data.

The good news is that the algorithm can be refreshed with time so the threat of hacking does not diminish over time.

In fact, the list of encryption algorithms and their compatibility with various platforms is available online.

AES 256-bit encryption is certified by the U.S. government as a safe method of encrypting data.

Among the cloud storage services on Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, and Dropbox use AES 256-bit encryption that ensures that information stored on these systems is secure against hacking and unwanted access.

For more details on the encryption for each of the stages from these providers, check out here where we make a comparison among those 3 prominent cloud storage services.

Other encryption methods are also used for cloud storage.

In addition to AES 256-bit encryption, other popular encryption algorithms include RSA 2048-bit, Microsoft One Time Password (OTP), and Elliptic Curve Cryptography (ECC).

Now that we know how cloud storage providers use encryption for data security, let’s take a look at what users can do to protect their accounts.

What Safeguards Are Provided by the Cloud Encryption Services?

Cloud storage providers use several methods to protect users’ data and make sure that they are not accessed or read by unauthorized or unintended users.

The primary goal of encryption is to keep your information secure and private.

Hence, the service providers guarantee that the data is secure by implementing various safeguards that make it very difficult to hack or access files when they are stored on their servers.

On a Side Note:

Did you know that pCloud had never been hacked or breached since they introduce their cloud storage services to the public? Find out how they manage such a stellar reputation with our detailed review here.

The most common measures used by cloud storage providers include:

Data encryption: Data is encrypted with a secret key-encrypting key (KEK) and another password called application-level password (ALP). Both of these passwords are required to access a specific file.

In other words, you cannot access the data unless you have both passwords. These passwords are stored in an encrypted format within the hard drive and are not included in the conventional data sent to the cloud provider.

End-to-end encryption: This is the best way to encrypt data before sending it to the cloud. Google, Dropbox, and other leading providers are known for providing end-to-end encryption.

The encrypted data is stored in their servers and will be decrypted at the same level as that of the user requesting access. This means that the data stored on the internet can only be accessed by users who are accessing it through the provider’s servers. The E2E has paved the way to a more advanced zero-knowledge encryption cloud.

Strong cryptography: The encryption keys, or keys, used to encrypt and decrypt data are generated from a random number. These keys cannot be guessed or made into decryption keys using any other method.

The length of encryption keys is also a measure that ensures that even with a large number of hackers, they will not be able to decrypt the data.

The security of data stored in the cloud relies on many different elements, including the hardware and software used by the cloud storage providers themselves.

As shown in the industry standards for authentication and encryption methods, most services offer high-grade protection against hacking.

Brief History of the Encryption Family

Encryption came a long way and below are some introductions and evolution for how our data and files are being secured and encrypted.

Data Encryption Standard (DES)

Data Encryption Standard (DES) is one of the older encryption methods. It was developed by IBM around 1975-1976 for use on military equipment. It uses a 64-bit key and a 56-bit initialization vector.

This encryption method is now considered to be weak and outdated. It has been replaced by more advanced methods such as Triple DES (3DES) or AES. If you are using data encryption standards, you need to find a faster and more secure solution.

Triple DES

Triple-DES (3DES) was created because DES was seen as vulnerable to cracking. 3DES uses a different key three times, using two or three keys in combination, along with an Initialization Vector.

Which essentially increases the number of effective bits from 64-bits to 168-bits or even 192-bits. This provides a higher level of protection against cracking.

Advanced Encryption Standard (AES)

Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) was developed by the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in 2001.

It does not use keys, which makes it much stronger than DES or Triple DES, but also slower than the more modern algorithms such as 3DES and AES-128.

AES-128

AES-128 is an improved version of the AES. Originally the algorithm was only capable of encrypting 128-bits, but in 2005 a patent expired and another algorithm was developed that increased the capabilities to 192-bits. This is accomplished by using two keys for encryption and the third key for decryption.

The AES-128 algorithm is more secure than DES and Triple DES because it uses keys and has a higher minimum key length.

It is also faster than the older algorithms as it can process much more information in a given amount of time. However, it has not been around as long as other standards which means there may be unforeseen weaknesses that are discovered in the future.

AES-256

AES 256 (Advanced Encryption Standard) is a stronger version of 128-bit encryption. A new draft of the specification for AES 256 was approved by the NIST in 2001. It is based on a block cipher called Rijndael, and how it utilizes keys.

Although there aren’t many differences between the two standards, the main one is that AES-256 can be used to encrypt data that contains more than just plain text such as pictures, music, and video files.

Should I Pick AES-256 or 128?

The encryption strength between 128-bit and 256-bit is referred to as a “strength”. In terms of security, AES-256 is considered to be more powerful than the 128-bit algorithm.

However, this depends on the type of information that you are using. The data used for storing files in an encrypted format must be kept secure and private.

For personal use, 128-bit encryption is fine. For business, the cloud providers usually provide secure 256-bit encryption.

What is the Difference Between Key Length and Key Strength?

The size of the encryption key determines whether or not a hacker will be able to crack the encryption. This is also referred to as the strength of encryption. You can have a 256-bit key, but it will not be enough if you use only one-tenth of it.

Similarly, you can have a 256-bit key and it can take years to crack. Which is stronger? It depends on how much you use it and what you are doing with it.

What Does a Key Look Like?

A key is a series of random numbers between 0 and 255. It is generally expressed as an integer but can also be expressed in decimal format. A key in binary format can be written as either one long sequence or two separate sequences that are joined together.

The first sequence is referred to as the key length and the second sequence is called the initialization vector, or IV.

What Creates a Secure Key?

The way our computers store and manage data depends on the type of algorithm used. All computer algorithms use what is referred to as a key-generating algorithm to create keys. There are two types of algorithms: symmetric (one-way) and asymmetric (two-way).

Symmetric algorithms use one type of encryption but can also decrypt messages encrypted with another algorithm.

On the other hand, asymmetric algorithms use two keys. The public key is used to encrypt messages. The private key is used to decrypt messages sent using the public key.

What Makes AES a Stronger Encryption?

Based on the number of bits used in an encryption algorithm, AES has a minimum length of 128-bit and a maximum of 256-bit encryption keys.

It is considered to be a stronger encryption method because it uses the block mode of encryption and the cipher operates on individual blocks of data.

Of course, it also depends on other factors such as key size, system performance, and how much data you are storing.

What Makes AES-256 More Secure?

AES-256 uses a minimum length of 256-bit encryption keys. There is not much difference in the security level between 128 and 256 bits.

Conclusion

The encryption of data is important since hackers are constantly out in the world trying to break into databases and steal information.

If you use a weak form of encryption, your data may be susceptible to hacking and can then be used for malicious purposes by the hacker.

Is your file safe with a cloud storage provider? 

The more secure the cloud storage provider, the more likely your data will be safe from hacking.

References:

  • https://www.nist.gov/publications/advanced-encryption-standard-aes
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advanced_Encryption_Standard