What is encryption?

Encryption has become a hot topic of debate in Congress

What is encryption?

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Encryption is a function on certain apps and devices that allows users to send and receive private messages.

End-to-end encryption allows people to communicate with each other on certain apps or devices without worrying about developers and other third parties like hackers or law enforcement having access to those messages.

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How does encryption work?

Cybersecurity infrastructure company Cloudfare explains encryption as a way of scrambling plain text into a kind of unreadable language.

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Encryption "is the process of converting plaintext to ciphertext. In simpler terms, encryption takes readable data and alters it so that it appears random. Encryption requires the use of an encryption key: a set of mathematical values that both the sender and the recipient of an encrypted message know," Cloudfare's website reads.

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Why is encryption controversial?

Encrypted messaging apps, devices and digital privacy in general are in high demand in this era of big tech and heightened cybercrime capabilities. Part of the reason Apple's iPhones are so popular is because they are encrypted, whereas some other popular smartphones are not.

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On the other hand, encryption has become a hot topic of debate in Congress since because a number of cybercriminals have taken advantage of the privacy that apps like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp offer through encryption technology. Encryption makes it harder for law enforcement to identify human traffickers and other criminals who communicate through those apps.

A customer compares her iPhone 6, left, with an iPhone 7 at an Apple Store in Chicago. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato, File)

The New York Times, for example, published a comprehensive report on the child sex abuse and human trafficking that takes place on encrypted messaging apps such as Messenger. The report notes that Messenger only became encrypted after Facebook came under pressure for not taking privacy seriously.

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"Facebook announced in March plans to encrypt Messenger, which last year was responsible for nearly 12 million of the 18.4 million worldwide reports of child sexual abuse material, according to people familiar with the reports," the report reads.

There are companies around the world that offer encryption-breaking services that can take anywhere from days to months to crack a code and access information on an app or device. Graykey and Cellebrite, for example, offer encryption-breaking services exclusively to the government and law enforcement.

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This report contains material from a previous FOX Business post.