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What is Encryption?

Encryption is a fundamental technology used to protect sensitive data by converting it into an unreadable format that can only be decoded by those who possess the correct decryption key. This process ensures that even if data is intercepted or accessed by unauthorised parties, it remains unintelligible and secure. Encryption plays a crucial role in safeguarding data confidentiality, integrity and authenticity, making it a cornerstone of modern cybersecurity strategies.

Encryption serves as a vital defence mechanism against data breaches and unauthorised access. It is used to secure data at rest (stored data) and data in transit (data being transmitted over networks).

Data at rest
For data at rest, encryption protects files, databases and entire storage systems from being read or altered without authorization. For example, full-disk encryption can protect the contents of a laptop or a server, ensuring that even if the device is lost or stolen, the data remains inaccessible to unauthorised users.

Data in transit
For data in transit, encryption secures communications between systems, such as emails, web traffic and transactions over the internet. Protocols like HTTPS, SSL/TLS, and VPNs rely on encryption to protect data from eavesdropping and tampering during transmission.

Identity and Access Management (IAM) relies heavily on encryption to secure the credentials and sensitive information used to verify and authenticate users. Encryption in IAM is applied in various ways to ensure that user credentials, such as passwords and authentication tokens, are protected. For instance, when a user creates a password, it is typically hashed - a form of encryption where the password is converted into a fixed-length string of characters that cannot be easily reversed. This hash is stored instead of the actual password, making it difficult for attackers to retrieve the original password even if they access the storage system. Similarly, encryption is used to secure communication channels for transmitting authentication credentials, ensuring that passwords and tokens cannot be intercepted in transit.

Encryption also plays a critical role in securing access tokens and session data within IAM systems. When users log in to a system, they are often issued access tokens or session cookies that allow them to maintain their authenticated state without having to re-enter their credentials repeatedly. These tokens are encrypted to prevent unauthorised access or tampering. If an attacker were to intercept an unencrypted token, they could potentially use it to gain access to the user's session and impersonate them. By encrypting these tokens, IAM systems ensure that even if they are intercepted, they remain unusable without the proper decryption key.

Moreover, encryption enhances IAM by enabling secure storage and transmission of sensitive identity attributes and personal data. IAM systems often manage a wide range of user information, from personal details and security questions to biometric data. Encryption ensures that this sensitive information is protected both when it is stored in databases and when it is transmitted between services or to third-party applications. This protection is essential for maintaining user privacy and complying with data protection regulations such as GDPR and CCPA, which mandate strict controls over the handling of personal data.

In addition to securing credentials and sensitive data, encryption supports IAM's implementation of advanced security features like multi-factor authentication (MFA) and federated identity management. For MFA, encryption secures the second factor, such as an OTP (one-time password) or a biometric scan, during transmission and verification. In federated identity systems, where a user's identity is managed across multiple domains or organisations, encryption ensures that identity assertions and tokens exchanged between systems remain confidential and tamper-proof.

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