Cryptography la versíon española la version française


Principles of Cryptography


People mean different things when they talk about cryptography. Children play with toy ciphers and secret languages. However, these have little to do with real security and strong encryption. Strong encryption is the kind of encryption that can be used to protect information of real value against organized criminals, multinational corporations, and major governments. Strong encryption used to be only military business; however, in the information society it has become one of the central tools for maintaining privacy and confidentiality.

As we move into an information society, the technological means for global surveillance of millions of individual people are becoming available to major governments. Cryptography has become one of the main tools for privacy, trust, access control, electronic payments, corporate security, and countless other fields.

Cryptography is no longer a military thing that should not be messed with. It is time to de-mystify cryptography and make full use of the advantages it provides for the modern society.

In the following, basic terminology and the main methods of cryptography are presented. Any opinions and evaluations presented here are speculative, and the author can be held responsible for its correctness - although every attempt is made to make sure that this information is as correct and up-to-date as possible.

Basic Terminology

Suppose that someone wants to send a message to a receiver, and wants to be sure that no-one else can read the message. However, there is the possibility that someone else opens the letter or hears the electronic communication.

In cryptographic terminology, the message is called plaintext or cleartext. Encoding the contents of the message in such a way that hides its contents from outsiders is called encryption. The encrypted message is called the ciphertext. The process of retrieving the plaintext from the ciphertext is called decryption. Encryption and decryption usually make use of a key, and the coding method is such that decryption can be performed only by knowing the proper key.

Cryptography is the art or science of keeping messages secret. Cryptanalysis is the art of breaking ciphers, i.e. retrieving the plaintext without knowing the proper key. People who do cryptography are cryptographers, and practitioners of cryptanalysis are cryptanalysts.

Cryptography deals with all aspects of secure messaging, authentication, digital signatures, electronic money, and other applications. Cryptology is the branch of mathematics that studies the mathematical foundations of cryptographic methods.

Basic Cryptographic Algorithms

A method of encryption and decryption is called a cipher. Some cryptographic methods rely on the secrecy of the algorithms; such algorithms are only of historical interest and are not adequate for real-world needs. All modern algorithms use a key to control encryption and decryption; a message can be decrypted only if the key matches the encryption key.

There are two classes of key-based encryption algorithms, symmetric (or secret-key) and asymmetric (or public-key) algorithms. The difference is that symmetric algorithms use the same key for encryption and decryption (or the decryption key is easily derived from the encryption key), whereas asymmetric algorithms use a different key for encryption and decryption, and the decryption key cannot be derived from the encryption key.

Symmetric algorithms can be divided into stream ciphers and block ciphers. Stream ciphers can encrypt a single bit of plaintext at a time, whereas block ciphers take a number of bits (typically 64 bits in modern ciphers), and encrypt them as a single unit.

Asymmetric ciphers (also called public-key algorithms or generally public-key cryptography) permit the encryption key to be public (it can even be published in a newspaper), allowing anyone to encrypt with the key, whereas only the proper recipient (who knows the decryption key) can decrypt the message. The encryption key is also called the public key and the decryption key the private key or secret key.

Modern cryptographic algorithms are no longer pencil-and-paper ciphers. Strong cryptographic algorithms are designed to be executed by computers or specialized hardware devices. In most applications, cryptography is done in computer software.

Generally, symmetric algorithms are much faster to execute on a computer than asymmetric ones. In practice they are often used together, so that a public-key algorithm is used to encrypt a randomly generated encryption key, and the random key is used to encrypt the actual message using a symmetric algorithm. This is sometimes called hybrid encryption.

Descriptions of many good cryptographic algorithms are widely and publicly available from any major bookstore, scientific library, patent office, or on the Internet. The most studied and probably the most widely spread symmetric cipher is DES; the upcoming AES might replace it as the most widely used encryption algorithm. RSA is probably the best known asymmetric encryption algorithm. The books page lists several good textbooks on cryptography and related topics.

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adapted by Rafal Swiecki, p. eng. email
November, 2004
This document is in the public domain.

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