“[E]ncryption technologies are the most important technological breakthrough in the last one thousand years.”

--Professor Lawrence Lessig, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace 36 (1999).


Needless to say, the Internet and other computer and communications technologies are radically altering the ways in which we communicate and exchange information. However, along with the speed, efficiency, and cost-saving benefits of the “digital revolution” come new challenges to the security and privacy of communications and information traversing the global communications infrastructure.

In response to these challenges, the security mechanisms of traditional paper-based communications media -- envelopes and locked filing cabinets -- are being replaced by cryptographic security techniques. Through the use of a technique called encryption, or cryptography, communication and information stored and transmitted by computers can be protected against interception to a very high degree. Until recently, there was little non-governmental demand for encryption capabilities. Modern encryption technology -- a mathematical process involving the use of formulas (or algorithms) -- was traditionally deployed most widely to protect the confidentiality of military and diplomatic communications. However, with the advent of the computer revolution, and recent innovations in the science of encryption, a new market for cryptographic products has developed. Electronic communications are now widely used in the civilian sector and have become an integral component of the global economy. Computers store and exchange an ever-increasing amount of highly personal information, including medical and financial data. In this electronic environment, the need for privacy-enhancing technologies is apparent.

Next: How does encryption work?

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