Encryption is the process of taking a piece of data (the plain text) and obscuring it so that unauthorised people cannot view the original information (this is called cipher text). Those people that are authorised to view the data can be issued with technologies to unencrypt it, and return it to its original form. These decryption technologies normally take the form of a key, which can electronically unlock the encrypted data.
Historically, confidential data may only have been handled by a select few members of an executive team, but now it is likely to be accessed by all levels of staff throughout an organisation. Increasingly, having a secure, encrypted IT infrastructure is a prerequisite for dealing electronically with many financial and institutional data suppliers such as banks and brokerages.
Countless cases have been highlighted over the past years where staff at all levels have accessed vast amounts of valuable data only for it to stolen from unprotected laptops, transferred to business partner servers, or sent via email to recipients with uncertain security.
Various pieces of legislation are now in place to force data owners to publicly disclose if confidential data is lost. This requirement is removed if the data is encrypted.