What is DES Encryption and How Does It Work?

You’re still safeguarding your most precious belongings in an old, rusty lockbox. Sure, it served its purpose back in the day, but would you trust it against modern-day thieves with high-tech tools? 

That’s kind of like relying on DES encryption in today’s cybersecurity world. If you’re handling sensitive data in the US, it’s time to upgrade your security game. You can see where you stand by looking at current encryption standards on the NIST‘s Computer Security Resource Center.

Let’s unlock the inner workings of DES, why it’s fallen out of favor, and the modern fortresses you need to protect your digital treasures.

What is DES Encryption?

DES Encryption

DES stands for Data Encryption Standard. Think of it like a secret code designed to scramble your data, making it unreadable to anyone without the special key to decode it. Imagine your confidential documents being chopped into tiny pieces, shuffled out of order, and then reassembled only by the person with the exact instructions. That’s the basic idea behind DES encryption.

Back in the 1970s, when computers were about as powerful as a toaster, DES was pretty cutting-edge. The US government even made it the official encryption standard. It was like putting a top-of-the-line lock on your door back then.

However, technology has marched on. Computers today are more like supercomputers compared to their clunky ancestors. Unfortunately for DES, its secret code has become relatively easy to crack.

To get a bit more technical, DES works by taking your original data (called “plaintext“) and putting it through a series of 16 transformations, like mixing, substituting, and rearranging bits (the 0s and 1s that make up computer language).

Each of these rounds uses a slightly different key, a bit like having multiple locks on the same box. The scrambled mess that comes out is your ciphertext, and it looks like gibberish to anyone without the right keys to put the pieces back in order.

How Does DES Encryption Work?

Understanding the inner workings of DES might seem daunting, but let’s break it down into simpler terms. Think of DES as a super-complicated recipe for scrambling your data. It involves a series of precise steps, each with its own special ingredient – a unique key.

Just like baking bread requires kneading, resting, and baking, DES encryption has its own specific process to transform your sensitive information.

Here’s a simplified way to understand the key components of DES:

  • The Plaintext: That’s your original data – a financial report, customer list, anything that needs protecting.
  • The Rounds: DES puts your plaintext through a series of 16 transformations, like mixing, substituting, and rearranging bits (computer language for 0s and 1s). Each round uses a slightly different key.
  • The Ciphertext: The scrambled mess that comes out is your ciphertext. Good luck making sense of it without the right key!

So, What’s the Problem with DES?

What's the Problem with DES

Two words: Brute force. Modern computers have a ridiculous amount of power. They can try out all possible DES keys in the blink of an eye. In fact, hackers first cracked DES in less than a day back in the late ’90s! 

In 1998 and 1999, the network security company RSA Security held a series of challenges to show just how weak DES was. In the third challenge in January 1999, distributed.net and Deep Crack found the key to crack the code in just 22 hours 15 minutes! DES was officially out-of-date.

Today, with the computing power we have, breaking DES is practically child’s play  It’s like trying to secure your house with a padlock from the dollar store – sure, it might deter an opportunistic passerby, but a determined burglar will make short work of it. In fact, Crack.sh has been able to achieve an average DES crack time of 25 seconds!

The problem with weak encryption like DES is that your data is only as safe as the key.  If a hacker can break the code, they have a blueprint for unlocking all your secrets. Imagine your financial records, medical information, or even sensitive business plans falling into the wrong hands.

The consequences could be devastating. Relying on outdated encryption like DES leaves you vulnerable to digital theft on a scale unimaginable even a few decades ago.

DES: Outdated but Sometimes Necessary

You might wonder, if DES is so vulnerable, why do some people still use it? Sometimes, legacy systems built decades ago, particularly in industries like finance or government, might still rely on DES. Generally, they utilize 3DES, which is a triple-run version of original DES that uses three separate keys.

Upgrading these systems to the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) can be a costly and complex undertaking, but the alternative isn’t great. It’s like knowing a storm is coming but refusing to reinforce your flimsy old shed – you’re just hoping for the best.

Thankfully, AES is available as a far superior replacement. The shift from DES to AES is essential for safeguarding your sensitive data in the modern world.

It’s the difference between leaving your valuables exposed and placing them within a nearly impenetrable digital fortress – the upgrade from a rusty lockbox to a top-of-the-line smart home security system with reinforced doors, motion sensors, and unbreakable virtual locks.

The Takeaway: Don’t Get Caught With Your Digital Pants Down

Whether you’re a tech professional, a business owner, or just someone who values their privacy – knowledge is power. Now that you understand the limitations of DES, you can make informed decisions about how your data – and that of your customers – should be protected. It’s time to leave the outdated lockboxes behind and embrace the digital fortresses of modern encryption.

Thomas Ward

Thomas Ward

Thomas Ward brings over a decade of cloud, infrastructure, and reliability engineering experience to the forefront of Spyrus’s mission. His time at leading tech innovators like Microsoft, Oracle, and MongoDB has shaped his deep understanding of how attackers exploit weaknesses in cloud systems and how to proactively defend them. Thomas witnessed the rapid shift to cloud environments alongside an explosion of cyber threats. He founded Spyrus out of a conviction to help businesses navigate this complex landscape. He leverages his expertise to build tailored, proactive cybersecurity solutions that protect clients’ sensitive assets and ensure their systems stay up and running – no matter what.