What is PGP encryption?

Ruth C. | July 15, 2020

PGP encryption stands for Pretty Good Privacy, but the name is an ironic understatement. Since its invention back in the 1990s, PGP evolved into one of the safest cryptographic technologies. Currently, it is a dominant cybersecurity standard. Let’s take a peek at what PGP encryption is, why it’s called “pretty good,” and how to use it.

What is PGP encryption?

Like any other type of encryption, PGP encryption transforms plain, readable text into a complex, unreadable code. It is an irreplaceable standard for email security. However, you can use it to secure files, directories, and entire disk partitions.

The combination of data compression, hashing, private-key, and public-key cryptography makes PGP a fitting solution for modern cybersecurity needs. Hence, financial institutions, healthcare organizations, and other highly regulated industries rely on PGP encryption to safeguard sensitive information.

Phil Zimmermann, a cypherpunk, created PGP.

How does PGP encryption work?

Imagine you want to send a message that no one besides the recipient could read. One solution would be to alter the letter with a secret code that only you and the recipient recognize. However, this option can be time-consuming and disrupt the normal conversation flow.

PGP encryption manages to solve this puzzling situation. Without any pre-arrangements necessary, PGP uses a combo of symmetric key encryption and public-key encryption. Although the mathematics behind PGP encryption can get complex, here is the basic explanation of how it works:

  1. Firstly, PGP generates a random session key. The key is a long string of numbers that encrypts and decrypts a particular message. As a result, only the intended recipient with the appropriate session key can read it.
  2. Next, the recipient’s public key encrypts the session key. The public key is unique to each user, similar to the personal email address you have. Therefore, anyone who knows your public key can use it to send you an encrypted letter.
  3. Users’ public keys communicate with private ones, which need to remain a secret. Once the recipient receives an encrypted message, the private key decrypts the session key. Then, the recipient can recover the letter in plaintext.

How secure is PGP encryption?

The principal advantage of PGP encryption is that it’s nearly unbreakable. It’s a vigorously-tested standard, which uses nothing less than 128-bit keys encryption. Even for the most powerful computer, it would take more than 10,000,000,000,000 years to try all of the possible keys to decrypt an individual message.

Although PGP encryption itself is highly secure, the biggest weakness remains the user. Like any other information security system, falling victim to a cyberattack due to a human error is still possible. Phishing scams and other social engineering-based crimes are the simplest, least high-tech, but often the most effective.

How to use PGP encryption?

If you wish to secure your communications, the PGP encryption setup involves installing an add-on on your standard email software. Also, you can use a client with a built-in PGP feature. For instance, you can download PGP add-on for Thunderbird, Outlook, and Apple Mail.

For those wanting to encrypt files, there are several large-scale software solutions. However, unless you’re a techie, setting up PGP as a standalone protocol might be complex. It requires advanced technical knowledge.

Final word

While no encryption is 100% foolproof, PGP encryption is one of the safest options. It provides you with a relatively easy, but ultimately reliable method of securing your communications. Without a doubt, encrypting your messages, protecting personal data, and enhancing overall privacy is worthwhile for any netizen.

Still, secure messaging is only one aspect of your cybersecurity. In addition to PGP encryption, you can set up a Virtual Private Network to anonymize your traffic and location. Besides encrypting all the data you send over the internet, a VPN masks your IP address. Hence, you can bypass geoblocks, prevent third parties from snooping on your usage data, and much more.

Ruth C.

Ruth C.

Cybersecurity Researcher and Publisher at Atlas VPN. Interested in cybercrime, online security, and privacy-related topics.



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