What is Encryption and Why is it Important for Your SMB?

In today’s digital landscape, we send, receive and store more information than ever before using the internet. This information may take the form of emails, online transactions, data storage, or even messages. If you run an SMB (small and medium-sized business), chances are that the majority of your communications and transactions are transmitted digitally. The daily operations of an SMB include sending and receiving sensitive data, ranging from invoices to financial records, and private customer information, all of which need to stay private. Knowledge is power, and the information that we send and receive is often valuable and confidential. Cybercriminals are eager to get hold of this data, and may target it during transit, or at rest. Email accounts may be compromised by hackers through phishing, and emails and their attachments may be intercepted as they travel through the email network.

Thankfully there is a knight in shining armor ready to protect your SMB and its digital dealings: encryption. Simply put, encryption converts your information and data into a form (code) that is unreadable by unauthorized parties. Once it is encrypted (converted into code) the data is unreadable without a corresponding decryption key. This ensures that the data cannot be accessed, altered, or otherwise tampered with, both during transmission and after delivery to the intended recipient. SMBs are increasingly targets of cyber attacks, as they are often perceived to have less robust cyber security than larger enterprises. Unfortunately, cybercrime is forecast to cost the world an eye-watering $10.5 trillion each year by 2025, representing the greatest transfer of wealth in history. Encryption can help protect your valuable data, providing an added layer of defense against cybercrime. In this article we will cover how to send encrypted email, and help you to choose encryption software for your business. Read on to discover all you need to know about encryption for small businesses.

Understanding Encryption

If you’re still wondering “What does encrypted mean?” Hopefully this paragraph will help. As we mentioned above, encryption is simply the process of converting information or data into a form that cannot be read by unauthorized individuals. The theory behind encryption is similar to writing a letter in a secret language that only the sender and recipient hold the key to. After the letter is sent, even if an unauthorized individual opens the envelope to have a peek, they will not be able to read the contents as it is written in a code that is hard to decipher.

How does encryption work?

Well, it's slightly more complicated than the secret letters of the past, and there’s no lemon juice involved. If a sender wants to encrypt an email using asymmetric cryptography (more on this later), the process follows this structure: Firstly, before sending, the sender must obtain the recipient’s public key, they then use this to encrypt the email. The information in the email will be converted via mathematical algorithms into cipher text (unreadable, encrypted data that can’t be read without the key). Once the encrypted email is sent, the recipient uses their private key (a key that corresponds to their public key) to decrypt their email into readable form.

Types of encryption

There are two principal methods used to encrypt and decrypt: symmetric and asymmetric cryptography. It’s not as simple as just using one or using the other, and many encryption services today use a combination of symmetric and asymmetric cryptography. Here’s the essential characteristics of both:

  • Symmetric encryption. As the name suggests, symmetric encryption uses the same key for encrypting and decrypting the data. The sender and recipient share the same (private) key, and this method of encryption is usually faster than asymmetric encryption. Commonly used for encrypting large amounts of data, symmetric encryption is also used to create secure channels between network endpoints, as well as encrypting computer and device storage.
  • Asymmetric encryption. The keys used in asymmetric encryption are mathematically related, but not identical. The public key is publicly available, while the private key is kept private and used to decrypt messages. This method of encryption offers users a way to send and receive encrypted messages without the need for a shared key. Slower, yet more secure than symmetric encryption, asymmetric encryption is used for secure communication as well as key exchange protocols.

The Importance of Encryption for SMBs

By converting your plaintext data into ciphertext, the content and its underlying message is protected from prying eyes. Even in the event of a breach, the encrypted data is useless to the attacker, as it is unreadable. This process protects sensitive data, such as customer information and even intellectual property. 

When it comes to customer data, SMBs must ensure regulatory compliance, or face severe consequences.

If your business targets or collects data related to people in the EU, then the world’s toughest privacy and security law, General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) applies to you! GDPR was drafted and passed by the European Union in 2018, protecting consumer rights over their personal information, and is the standard against which other information privacy laws are judged. If you work in the healthcare sector, compliance with the The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) is necessary. HIPAA protects the privacy of the medical records and personal health information of Americans. HIPAA also specifies the responsibilities of healthcare providers in safeguarding patient information.

SMBs collecting information from California residents must also ensure CCPA compliance. To meet CCPA compliance, businesses must encrypt consumer personal information, as noted in Section 1798.150 of the Act: “Any consumer whose non encrypted and non redacted personal information, as defined in subparagraph (A) of paragraph (1) of subdivision (d) of Section 1798.81.”

In addition to the legal responsibilities faced by SMBs regarding customer data  encryption, companies that protect their data build trust with their customers. By ensuring regulatory compliance, and displaying your respect for your customers’ data privacy, SMBs can enhance their reputation, and build trust. As a customer, ask yourself, would you choose to work with a company that has a proven track record of data protection and regulatory compliance, or would you go with a company who has been a victim of cybercrime?

Practical Applications of Encryption in SMBs

And now, the part you’ve all been waiting for! Let's discuss how to encrypt emails. Email encryption is an important first step in securing your SMB’s communications.

Encryption prevents unauthorized individuals from intercepting, eavesdropping and even conducting man-in-the-middle attacks (altering the content of your emails).

Outlook

If you use Outlook, there are several ways to encrypt your communications, 

including S/MIME (Secure/Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions) encryption and Microsoft 365 Message Encryption. For more information on how to encrypt email in Outlook, we recommend you follow Microsoft’s guide to encryption.

Gmail

Gmail uses S/MIME to support enhanced encryption, and automatically encrypts outgoing emails if you have S/MIME enabled on your account. To learn what the padlock encryption icons mean, we recommend checking Google’s helpful answers page to learn more about Gmail encryption.

Or a more secure alternative?

If the levels of encryption offered by the mainstream email providers don’t quite meet your needs, then an encrypted mail service such as Proton Mail may be more suitable. In common with all email servers, Proton Mail uses TLS (Transport layer security) as standard, but also stores your messages in a zero-access encrypted form. For added peace of mind, email communications between Proton Mail users are end-to-end encrypted. 

Data: at rest and in transit

Stored data and data that are being transmitted are both potential targets for cybercriminals. Firstly, stored data should be encrypted to protect against unauthorized users who might gain access. The data remains unreadable, even in the event of a data breach, or physical theft of the storage medium. Encryption of stored data also ensures that SMBs meet the regulatory requirements mentioned above.

If the highway is for gamblers, then you’d better encrypt your data. Like a horse-drawn cart traveling through the forest at night, sensitive information is particularly vulnerable during transit. Encrypting data in transit ensures secure communication, preventing unauthorized individuals from gaining access. While in transit, the data is also potentially liable to tampering and alteration by a third party, encrypting protects against this. Encryption also stops potential eavesdroppers who aim to intercept and read sensitive data.

Emails aside, business communications including messaging, conferences and calls, can all be secured through encryption. Depending on your choice of messenger app, some feature end-to-end encryption as standard. WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram are all encrypted, but check your settings to ensure that encryption is running. Similarly, Microsoft Teams messages are encrypted, and for calls, end-to-end encryption offers an extra layer of security for heightened confidentiality.

Implementing Encryption in your SMB

There are several important factors required to ensure best practices in encryption. Firstly, the key. Like a physical key, there are multiple considerations that must be made to safeguard the privacy and integrity of sensitive data. The key must be created from cryptographic algorithms of sufficient complexity to resist cyber attacks. Keys should be stored in secure systems, such as HSMs (hardware security modules), with controlled access. While public keys must be openly distributed, private keys must be kept private. Regular rotation of keys for symmetric encryption is another necessary step, protecting against the potential impact of compromised keys. Key usage must be monitored, and staff trained in the correct use of encryption keys.

Employees are at the frontline of the war against cybercriminals, and they should be trained accordingly. Encrypting important and sensitive data should become second nature, and employees should be encouraged to encrypt their email, voice chats, and messaging, as well as employ VPNs where necessary.

Choosing the right encryption tools

There is a wide range of encryption software and services available today, so make sure that the service you choose provides comprehensive protection for all of your SMB’s needs. Secured-core PCs such as Acer’s Secured-core PCs can help you to create a secure operating environment for your SMB. Featuring Acer ProShield Plus, the wide array of encryption and security features will let you get on with your business, knowing that you are well protected.

ProShield Plus protects against unauthorized access with state-of-the-art file encryption and decryption. These include drag and drop options for encryption or decryption, as well as a PSD (personal secure drive) and a file shredder. In addition to encryption and decryption, Acer Secured-core PCs feature the Trusted Platform Module 2.0 (TPM) and a modern, capable CPU with dynamic root of trust measurement (DRTM) capability to boot securely and minimize the impact of firmware vulnerabilities. The integrated “On-By-Default” security experience of Acer’s Secured-core PCs can ensure that the security risks to your SMB are mitigated, letting you get on with your business.

The future of encryption

As cybercrime evolves, so too must encryption and PC security. Your customers trust you with their sensitive information, it is your SMB’s responsibility to protect their data, both at rest, and in transit. Data protection and privacy holds an increasingly important position in the eyes of governments and legislative bodies worldwide. Today, 71% of countries have data protection and privacy legislation, a figure that promises to grow as economic and social activities are increasingly conducted online.

The public is more aware than ever of their rights to privacy and protection of their personal data. Privacy is a right, and customers today require businesses to be transparent about the data they collect and what they do with it. What’s more, customers expect businesses to honor their privacy preferences and offer the right to be forgotten. In light of the above, an SMB that consistently protects the privacy of its customers’ data is bound to attract and retain clients.

High profile data breaches and cybersecurity upsets have educated customers about the importance of online security and privacy. A single data breach can have a devastating impact on an SMB: by prioritizing privacy and thwarting attacks, businesses can demonstrate their commitment to protecting their customers’ sensitive data. When it comes to encryption and digital security in general, evolution is a necessary strategy. As more and more aspects of our human existence make the leap to the digital landscape, businesses must stay up to date with cyberthreats and new encryption methods.

The takeaway

In the digital age, encryption is vital for SMBs. As businesses increasingly transmit sensitive data through email and other digital platforms, encryption is key to protecting communications from unauthorized access. With the growth of cybercrime, attacks on SMBs have increased: correct implementation of symmetric and asymmetric cryptography can safeguard your data during transit and at rest. SMBs have a legal responsibility to comply with regulations such as GDPR, HIPAA and CCPA, or face severe financial penalties and damage to hard won reputation. As customers worldwide demand increased privacy, SMBs need to adapt to the ever-changing digital landscape by prioritizing data protection.

Maintaining confidentiality of data, both during transit and in storage should be an integrated part of your SMB’s operations. Depending on your business type, if you use a regular email server, ensure that you have selected the correct encryption settings, or opt for a secure, encrypted service if needed. There are many convenient, integrated encryption solutions available today, so shop around and find the one that addresses your SMB’s needs. Finally, if you’re looking for a device to help your SMB thrive, while protecting your data, then Acer Secured-core PCs provide integrated defense solutions to secure your future and elevate your impact. 

Edmund is an English copywriter based in New Taipei City, Taiwan. He is a widely published writer and translator with two decades of experience in the field of bridging linguistic and cultural gaps between Chinese and English.

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