Public-key Cryptography - How IT Works

How It Works

The distinguishing technique used in public-key cryptography is the use of asymmetric key algorithms, where the key used to encrypt a message is not the same as the key used to decrypt it. Each user has a pair of cryptographic keys - a public encryption key and a private decryption key. The publicly available encrypting-key is widely distributed, while the private decrypting-key is known only to the recipient. Messages are encrypted with the recipient's public key, and can be decrypted only with the corresponding private key. The keys are related mathematically, but the parameters are chosen so that determining the private key from the public key is either impossible or prohibitively expensive. The discovery of algorithms that could produce public/private key pairs revolutionized the practice of cryptography, beginning in the mid-1970s.

In contrast, symmetric-key algorithms - variations of which have been used for thousands of years - use a single secret key, which must be shared and kept private by both the sender and the receiver, for both encryption and decryption. To use a symmetric encryption scheme, the sender and receiver must securely share a key in advance.

Because symmetric key algorithms are nearly always much less computationally intensive than asymmetric ones, it is common to exchange a key using a key-exchange algorithm, then transmit data using that key and a symmetric key algorithm. PGP and the SSL/TLS family of schemes use this procedures, and are thus called hybrid cryptosystems.

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