Encryptions, Decryptions, and Ciphers, Oh My!

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Credited: Markus Spiske | Unsplash (CCL)
  • Symmetric ciphers, also referred to as secret key encryption, use a single key. This type of cipher is often faster than an asymmetric cipher because it requires the user or sender to give access to anyone with the ability to decrypt the data. This cipher is similar to a shared secret due to how it functions. A well-known symmetric cipher would be Advanced Encryption Standard or AES.
  • Asymmetric ciphers, also known as public-key encryption, use two different keys that are linked in the process of data being sent. For example, if one key is used for encryption the other will be used for decryption. This type of cipher often uses large prime numbers to create keys since it becomes difficult to unravel the encryption. An example of an asymmetric cipher would be Rivest-Shamir-Adleman or RSA.

Keys: Why are they needed?

  • AES is a symmetric block cipher that superseded the Data Encryption Standard or DES that was popular pre-1977. This was due to DES becoming targeted by ‘brute-force’ attacks (Hint: Hackers), in which applications go through trial and error to unwrap keys and decrypt data. AES is used by many, including the U. S. Government, to encrypt classified information on software and hardware.
  • RSA is an asymmetric cipher that is used widely to protect and share symmetric keys. It is much slower than AES and other symmetric ciphers due to its reliance on large prime numbers in its encryption and decryption, but this makes it time-consuming for anyone to try a brute-force attack even if asymmetric ciphers or more susceptible due to being a ‘public-key’. RSA is still used by secured networks, mail extensions, and internet communications.

Where does this all lead to?

  • Quantum cryptography uses the quantum mechanical properties of particles to secure data by understanding the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. This means if the quantum encrypted data was observed in any way during transit, by the sender, receiver, or hacker, the data would be changed. This would then let the sender and receiver know that the data was observed or attacked.
  • QKD uses entangled photons to create encryption keys for transferring messages or data. These keys would change if they were observed between transferring from sender to receiver, which would alert that there was an interception. However, if the key is secured and not observed, the encrypted data would be able to transfer without any changes made.

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