Data breaches are becoming more and more common, so it’s essential you know about the different ways you can protect your valuable information. Zero-knowledge encryption is one such method that offers superior privacy and data protection.
But what exactly is zero-knowledge encryption? How is it different from end-to-end encryption? And what are its pros and cons?
What Is Encryption?
Encryption is a crucial tool to protect information from prying eyes. At its most basic level, encryption is the process of encoding messages or information so that only the intended users can read it.
Encryption uses complex mathematical algorithms to transform plaintext (data readable by humans) into ciphertext that no machine or human can read. Only a user with a decryption key can convert ciphertext back to plaintext, i.e. readable data. So hackers will only see gibberish if they get hold of ciphertext.
Two types of encryption are primarily used when it comes to securing data.
Just as an armored truck protects its contents, encryption-in-transit protects your data when it is in transit. For example, when you download or upload files to a cloud storage provider, the data is encrypted during the transmission for protection.
TLS is the most commonly used encryption protocol for encryption-in-transit.
This type of encryption protects stored data—when it is not being used; for example, data saved on the server of a cloud storage provider. AES-256 is the industry standard encryption protocol for encryption-at-rest.
Most cloud storage providers include both types of encryption methods to offer reasonable protection. However, in encryption-in-transit, the server can access all the decrypted information, and any successful server attack has the potential to reveal your sensitive information. And the server has a decryption key in encryption-at-rest, meaning a data breach incident can happen due to any employee’s misbehavior or server attack.
Zero-knowledge encryption can fill the security gap left by these two encryption types.
What Is Zero-Knowledge Encryption?
In zero-knowledge encryption, your data is always secured because the decryption key lies with only you. The service provider knows nothing about your encryption key and the data you are processing.
In the event of a server attack on your service provider, hackers will get nothing except gibberish text because you hold the encryption key. The objective of zero-knowledge encryption is simple—only you can access encrypted data.
Now, you’re probably wondering, don’t all cloud storage providers ensure that your data is inaccessible to unauthorized users? Yes, they do.
However, many cloud storage providers keep the copies of users’ encryption keys and track the data users process in order to offer a better user experience. For example, Dropbox keeps a copy of your encryption key to provide faster service. So you might be asking yourself, is Dropbox secure enough for your private files?
Zero-knowledge encryption is the way to go if you want superior privacy and security for your data, as the service provider will never know your encryption key.
Are Zero-Knowledge Encryption and End-to-End Encryption the Same?
No, zero-knowledge encryption and end-to-end encryption are not the same.
In end-to-end encryption (E2EE), data or information is encrypted at one end and transmitted in the form of ciphertext to reach the other end, where it is decrypted. Consequently, hackers or any third party cannot read data or information while it is transmitted from one end to another or resting on the server.
End-to-end encryption is an excellent way to protect data and efficiently addresses vulnerabilities in encryption-in-transit and encryption-at-rest. But you can employ it only for communication channels where there is another end.
On the other hand, zero-knowledge encryption is all about encrypting data locally and keeping the encryption key hidden from the service provider.
You can use zero-knowledge encryption in any service that locks data behind passwords. Many cloud storage services and password managers use zero-knowledge encryption to offer users better security.
Moreover, with a third-party app like Cryptomator, you can implement zero-knowledge encryption on Google Drive, OneDrive, Dropbox, or any other cloud storage provider that doesn’t come with the zero-knowledge encryption feature.
What Are the Benefits of Zero-Knowledge Encryption?
Here are the key benefits of implementing zero-knowledge encryption:
- No one can access your private data—not even the service provider.
- You control how your data is handled because it’s encrypted locally on your device before it reaches the server.
- You protect your privacy because no one can collect, analyze, or sell your private information.
- Your data will be protected, even in harsh attacks.
More and more service providers and app developers are adopting zero-knowledge encryption due to its ability to offer strong privacy and data protection.
Downsides of Zero Knowledge Encryption
Every coin has two sides; so does zero-knowledge encryption. Zero-knowledge encryption offers superior data privacy and security, but it also has a few snags.
One of the biggest drawbacks of using zero-knowledge encryption is that you cannot access your data if you forget your encryption key and secret code to recover it. The service provider doesn’t know about your password/encryption key, so it cannot help you recover data.
Losing the encryption key means losing access to your data. If you’re a scatterbrain, you need to be extra careful when implementing zero-knowledge encryption.
Zero-knowledge encryption can slow down the speed of accessing data. The extra encryption steps due to zero-knowledge encryption might slow down data downloading and uploading to cloud storage.
However, the superior data security offered by zero-knowledge encryption outweighs this lag.
Implementing zero-knowledge encryption often affects user experience. As the service provider doesn’t have access to your data, some features, like the preview of pictures and documents, might not work. Also, without data collection, service providers may not be able to offer intuitive interfaces.
So zero-knowledge encryption might not be the right option for users who prefer convenience to security.
Protect What You Value
It’s critical for everyone to take the proper security measures to protect their sensitive information. Use services and apps that implement zero-knowledge encryption for optimum security and privacy.
Zero-knowledge cloud storage providers and password managers offer better data security and privacy than the ones that don’t use such encryption.
Additionally, you should set up strong encryption on your PC to protect what’s important to you.