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What Is the Data Encryption Standard?

A page of encrypted data.
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  • Written By: Troy Holmes
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 12 September 2014
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Data encryption is the process of scrambling strings of plain-text data into unrecognizable values. This is an effective security measure for digital data because it makes the data useless to prying eyes. The data encryption standard (DES) was the first defined standard for digital data encryption. This standard was created in 1976 by the United States government as a way to secure sensitive government information.

The National Institute of Technology Standards (NIST) is the governing body for technology standards in the United States. This agency is a component of the federal Department of Commerce. The agency was founded in 1901 to support scientific studies and laboratory research for physical science.

Data encryption is a process of transforming plain-text data into a unique set of characters. Secret cryptographic codes have been used for centuries as a method of hiding sensitive data in messages. Encryption is an automated version of cryptography that creates a secret message for computer data files. This process uses complex encryption algorithms, which are mathematical functions that manipulate data based on defined standards. The data encryption standard is a defined format for scrambling data. It is based on a 56-bit encryption key.

Encryption keys are the secret passwords that are used in deciphering cryptographic data. An encryption algorithm uses the encryption key to transform the plain-text data into a scrambled format. This key is unique and must also be used for the deciphering process. The key is typically shared by trusted entities and held in secrecy.

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The data encryption standard was an early version of digital encryption and required a 56-bit encryption key. While this was a good form of early encryption, computer scientists realized the key size was not large enough to deter hackers. Because of this limitation, the advanced standard encryption (AES) was created by NIST in 2001. The standards in AES require a much larger key, which makes deciphering impossible.

Many legacy computer platforms use the data encryption standard. This encryption algorithm evolved into a triple DES standard version, which was an attempt of creating complex encryption keys while retaining the small 56-bit key. Triple DES is a minor variation of this standard, which is much slower than regular DES. Triple DES is typically more widely used because DES is too easy to decipher.

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