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What is Asymmetric Cryptography?

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  • Written By: M. McGee
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 10 November 2016
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Asymmetric cryptography is a type of encryption where the key used to encrypt the information is not the same as the key used to decrypt the information. This format is the opposite of symmetric cryptography, where the same key is used to both encrypt and decrypt the information. The most common form of asymmetric cryptography is public key encryption. While asymmetric cryptography is generally more secure that symmetric, it is also more difficult to set up and practically impossible to perform without computer assistance.

Public key encryption is by far the most common type of asymmetric cryptography. In this system, each user has two keys, a public key and a private key. The public key is published and available to any person that wants to see it. The private key is mathematically related to the public key, but the algorithm is so complex and variable that there is no reasonable way to derive a private key from a public.

Suppose a message needs to be sent from one person to another. The sender would locate the receiver’s public key and use it to encrypt a message. When the receiver gets the message, he attempts to open it. The receiver’s public key verifies that the private key is authentic. The private key then allows the user to decrypt the message and read it.

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The main advantage of asymmetric cryptography is in individual security. The two people that exchange the message may never have met face-to-face; in fact, they don’t even need to know who the other person is. Since the individuals may publish their keys under any identity that they wish, there is total anonymity in the system.

This is in direct opposition to symmetric cryptography where the same key is used for encryption and decryption. In this case, it is practically impossible to not know the person deciphering a message, as the key would need to be exchanged beforehand. In an asymmetric system, it is easy to keep a key secure, but symmetric systems potentially have many people with the same key, increasing the risk it will be compromised.

One of the biggest drawbacks to asymmetric cryptography is its dependence on computers. Without a computer system, it is practically impossible to perform asymmetric encryption or decryption. Since the entire process is computer-controlled, it is also possible to break the system with a computer. While some public-key encryption is considered nearly crack-proof, every year a new cracking method comes out that requires new encryption countermeasures.

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stoneMason
Post 3

There are advantages and disadvantages of both these systems. Asymmetric has more security and ensures that no one besides the intended recipient receives the message. But it's also more difficult to stay anonymous as the recipient will usually see who sent it and vice versa. It's partly necessary for the message to remain secure. How can you know that only one person has seen the message if you don't know who you are?

Symmetric cryptography, despite not being very secure makes it much easier to stay anonymous. The key is public, so the message could have come from anyone.

I think one or the other may be more useful depending on what the sender of the message wants to achieve.

turquoise
Post 2

@fify-- I'm definitely not an expert on this topic but I think hat asymmetric cryptography is still much more secure because of the unique and different key required to open the message. There is still some security measurement there which doesn't exist at all with symmetric cryptography. Anyone with the public key will be able to open the message.

I'm sure that someone who is in this field and skilled at what they do could crack the code required to open a message with asymmetric cryptography. But it will never be as easy as it is with a symmetric encrypted message.

fify
Post 1

Ah, so because it is computer based, an asymmetric system is not more safe than a symmetric one? There is a phrase I heard recently and it's probably true "anything computer based can be hacked." It's impossible for a computer based encryption system to be 100% safe from compromise. So it's more of a game that one needs to stay ahead of by constantly developing new and more complex cryptography. It's hardly groundbreaking.

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