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It might not be clear when you go to the store to shop for an Android phone, but there's a dividing line between "flagship" phones and entry-level phones that isn't distinguished on the price tags. That higher price usually gets you more storage, a nicer screen and faster performance, but there are multiple chips working to make a fast phone fast, and one of these chips is dedicated to encryption.

Chips that can rapidly encrypt and decrypt the data on your phone are expensive, so most entry-level Android phones simply don't have them. And trying to encrypt a phone without a dedicated physical processor bogs down the speed of the more economical phones.

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So while full-device encryption on Android devices has been technically mandatory since 2015, the ecosystem's budget-oriented phones have actually been grandfathered in for the last several years. However, Google has not been idle in the meantime.

It turns out that the company has been working hard on optimizations to current encryption standards, and today Google has announced the arrival of Adiantum, which is built on the ChaCha20 stream cipher that's ordinarily used to encrypt an HTTPS web page, like the one you use to access your bank's website.

The details get pretty technical, but the upshot is that Google figured out how to adapt ChaCha20 to work as a device encryption system as well. Compared to trying to use AES encryption on a device that lacks a dedicated chip, performance is now about five times faster, which makes Adiantum good enough to use on less fancy Android phones. This means that entry-level Android phones can now get full-disk encryption just like their more expensive relatives.

However, Wired reports that we shouldn't expect Adiantum to be put in every currently shipping budget Android phone, because the decision to upgrade is up to the device's manufacturer. Instead, we can expect it to start showing up in Android phones released in the future. (And as a rule, budget Android phones get the fewest updates anyway.)

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On the bright side, Google says that Adiantum doesn't necessarily need to be limited to Android phones. It could go wherever Android can be found -- and it's increasingly common in smart TVs, video streaming boxes and even refrigerators; this collection of devices is part of the growing "internet of things" (IoT) in our homes, which can also include smart plugs, smart speakers and light bulbs with Wi-Fi connections.

Security has been a problem in the IoT world, so being able to encrypt such devices could help ensure that the data on them is only seen by the people who should be allowed to see it.

Takeaways

  • Google has announced a new encryption algorithm called Adiantum, which is optimized enough that it doesn't require a dedicated chip that's common in high-end Android phones.
  • As a result, cheaper Android phones can now have full-disk encryption for better privacy and security. However, this update will probably apply to future budget-oriented phones, rather than current ones.

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Tom McNamara is a Senior Editor for CNET's Download.com. He mainly covers Windows, mobile and desktop security, games, Google, streaming services, and social media. Tom was also an editor at Maximum PC and IGN, and his work has appeared on CNET, PC Gamer, MSN.com, and Salon.com. He's also unreasonably proud that he's kept the same phone for more than two years.