256-bit encryption refers to the key length used to encrypt and decrypt data. Encryption is the process of turning plaintext data into ciphertext, a garbled version of the original data. To turn the ciphertext back to human-readable data, you would need the 256-bit key.
256-bit encryption is considered the strongest level of encryption since it currently uses the longest encryption key. This method requires 14 rounds of multiple processes to encrypt data and the same number of rounds to decrypt it.
Imagine having to go through 14 bank vault doors to get to your target. If you know the code for each lock, then you can open all 14 doors. Otherwise, it could take you a long time to get through.
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Before 256-bit encryption was developed, organizations used 128-bit keys and then 192-bit keys. While these encryption key lengths are relatively secure, 256-bit has become the encryption standard for both the government and private sectors.
How Does 256-Bit Encryption Work?
256-bit encryption works by locking data or a file using a secret key that is 256-bit long. Now, it may be difficult to imagine how long that key is, so let’s convert it into a more relatable number. How many possible combinations are there if you need to guess what the 256-bit long secret key is?
You have 2256 possibilities, which are equivalent to 232 multiplied by itself eight times. To visualize this number more, we can convert 232 to its equivalent, which is 4,294,967,296. Therefore, the number of possible secret key combinations when using 256-bit encryption is 4 billion multiplied by itself eight times.
Keying this equation into a calculator would return the value 1.1579209e+77.
Can You Break 256-Bit Encryption?
With an infinite number of possible combinations, can anyone break 256-bit encryption? Hackers are known to use brute force, which involves guessing the password until the correct combination is submitted.
To put things into perspective, consider an email account with a password consisting of eight alphanumeric characters. Password Depot estimates that there are about 457 trillion possible combinations, and it would take hackers 2.6 days to decrypt it through brute force. A 12-character password, on the other hand, is a different story. Decryption would take approximately 7.5 million years.
Several experts concluded that it is impossible to break 256-bit encryption even if people use the most powerful computer.
How Long Does It Take to Break 256-Bit Encryption?
So, if it takes 7.5 million years to crack a 12-character password, how long would it take to decrypt 256-bit encryption? The video below shows a detailed calculation that pegs the answer at 507 billion years, 37 times the age of the universe.
Is 256-Bit Encryption Safe?
Because of the infinite number of possible combinations, 256-bit encryption is considered the most secure encryption method. However, experts are pointing out that security would also depend on the type of cryptography used.
There are generally two types of cryptography—asymmetric and symmetric. We tackled the difference between the two in this post. But to give a basic idea, symmetric encryption uses the same key for encryption and decryption. On the other hand, asymmetric cryptography uses different keys for each process.
The safety of 256-bit encryption would depend on how the keys are handled rather than the possibility of a hacker cracking them. For instance, in symmetric encryption that uses 256-bit keys, if hackers get hold of the key, they can use it to decrypt the data.
256-bit encryption is the current encryption standard, and multiple people have proven that it is difficult to break. Regardless of encryption method or key length used, though, careful and secure handling of data is critical.