Public-key cryptography has been said to be the most significant new development in cryptography in the last 300-400 years. Modern PKC was first described publicly by Stanford University professor Martin Hellman and graduate student Whitfield Diffie in 1976. Their paper described a two-key crypto system in which two parties could engage in a secure communication over a non-secure communications channel without having to share a secret key.
PKC depends upon the existence of so-called one-way functions, or mathematical functions that are easy to computer whereas their inverse function is relatively difficult to compute. Let me give you two simple examples:
While the examples above are trivial, they do represent two of the functional pairs that are used with PKC; namely, the ease of multiplication and exponentiation versus the relative difficulty of factoring and calculating logarithms, respectively. The mathematical "trick" in PKC is to find atrap door in the one-way function so that the inverse calculation becomes easy given knowledge of some item of information.
Generic PKC employs two keys that are mathematically related although knowledge of one key does not allow someone to easily determine the other key. One key is used to encrypt the plaintext and the other key is used to decrypt the ciphertext. The important point here is that it does not matter which key is applied first, but that both keys are required for the process to work (Figure 1B). Because a pair of keys are required, this approach is also called asymmetric cryptography.
With secret key cryptography, a single key is used for both encryption and decryption. As shown in Figure 1A, the sender uses the key (or some set of rules) to encrypt the plaintext and sends the ciphertext to the receiver. The receiver applies the same key (or ruleset) to decrypt the message and recover the plaintext. Because a single key is used for both functions, secret key cryptography is also called symmetric encryption.
With this form of cryptography, it is obvious that the key must be known to both the sender and the receiver; that, in fact, is the secret. The biggest difficulty with this approach, of course, is the distribution of the key.
Secret key cryptography schemes are generally categorized as being either stream ciphers or block ciphers. Stream ciphers operate on a single bit (byte or computer word) at a time and implement some form of feedback mechanism so that the key is constantly changing. A block cipher is so-called because the scheme encrypts one block of data at a time using the same key on each block. In general, the same plaintext block will always encrypt to the same ciphertext when using the same key in a block cipher whereas the same plaintext will encrypt to different ciphertext in a stream cipher.
Stream ciphers come in several flavors but two are worth mentioning here. Self-synchronizing stream ciphers calculate each bit in the keystream as a function of the previous n bits in the keystream. It is termed "self-synchronizing" because the decryption process can stay synchronized with the encryption process merely by knowing how far into the n-bit keystream it is. One problem is error propagation; a garbled bit in transmission will result in n garbled bits at the receiving side. Synchronous stream ciphers generate the keystream in a fashion independent of the message stream but by using the same keystream generation function at sender and receiver. While stream ciphers do not propagate transmission errors, they are, by their nature, periodic so that the keystream will eventually repeat.
A nice overview of these different modes can be found at progressive-coding.com.
Secret key cryptography algorithms that are in use today include:
The most common SKC scheme used today, DES was designed by IBM in the 1970s and adopted by the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) [now the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST)] in 1977 for commercial and unclassified government applications. DES is a block-cipher employing a 56-bit key that operates on 64-bit blocks. DES has a complex set of rules and transformations that were designed specifically to yield fast hardware implementations and slow software implementations, although this latter point is becoming less significant today since the speed of computer processors is several orders of magnitude faster today than twenty years ago. IBM also proposed a 112-bit key for DES, which was rejected at the time by the government; the use of 112-bit keys was considered in the 1990s, however, conversion was never seriously considered.
Symmetric-key cryptography refers to encryption methods in which both the sender and receiver share the same key (or, less commonly, in which their keys are different, but related in an easily computable way). This was the only kind of encryption publicly known until June 1976.
One round (out of 8.5) of thepatented IDEA cipher, used in some versions of PGP for high-speed encryption of, for instance, e-mail