· Alex · security · 6 min read

What is Another Name for Asymmetric Cryptography?

How it works, real world applications, pros and cons

How it works, real world applications, pros and cons

What is Another Name for Asymmetric Cryptography?

Asymmetric cryptography goes by another name – ‘public-key cryptography’. This name comes from the unique use of a pair of keys: a public key, which anyone can see and use to encrypt data, and a private key, kept secret by the owner and used to decrypt the data.

Understanding Cryptography 

Let’s talk about the two main types of cryptography: symmetric and asymmetric. Picture symmetric cryptography as a safe with a single key that both locks and unlocks it. The same key is used for encryption and decryption. This makes it fast and efficient, but there’s a catch. Sharing the key securely with your communication partner can be tricky. If the key falls into the wrong hands, your data is toast.

On the flip side, asymmetric cryptography, uses two different keys. One for locking (public key) and one for unlocking (private key). This solves the key-sharing problem of symmetric cryptography. You can give your public key to anyone without worrying about it being stolen because without the private key, the data they encrypt with your public key is useless. But, there’s no free lunch. Asymmetric cryptography uses complex mathematical functions, making it slower and more resource-intensive than symmetric cryptography.

In essence, both symmetric and asymmetric cryptography play crucial roles in our digital world. Symmetric cryptography is fast and efficient for encrypting data, while asymmetric cryptography, with its two-key mechanism, ensures secure key exchange and communication over an unsecure network. The choice of which one to use typically depends on the specific needs of the situation.

Digging Deeper into Asymmetric (Public-Key) Cryptography 

As mentioned earlier, asymmetric cryptography is unique because it uses two different keys – one for encryption and another for decryption.

How does the process of encryption and decryption work with these two keys? Let’s say Alice wants to send a secret message to Bob. Bob gives Alice his public key, which Alice uses to encrypt her message. Once the message is encrypted, it’s sent over to Bob. Even if someone intercepts the message on its way to Bob, they can’t decrypt it because they don’t have Bob’s private key. When Bob gets the encrypted message, he uses his private key to decrypt it and reads Alice’s original message.

The beauty of this system is that the keys are mathematically linked. What one key does, the other can undo, but, even if you have the public key, it’s practically impossible to figure out the private key. This is why we can share our public keys freely. Even if a bad actor gets it, they can’t reverse engineer the private key.

Real-world Applications of Public-Key Cryptography 

First up, we have digital signatures. Digital what, you ask? Think of digital signatures like an electronic seal of authenticity. Just like signing a paper document, a digital signature assures the recipient that the message truly came from the sender and wasn’t tampered with during transmission. Here’s where public-key cryptography comes into play: the sender uses their private key to create the digital signature. The recipient then uses the sender’s public key to verify it. If the verification succeeds, bingo! We know that the message is authentic and integral.

Next, let’s talk about SSL/TLS. If you’ve ever noticed a tiny padlock icon in your web browser’s address bar, you’ve seen SSL/TLS in action. SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) and its successor, TLS (Transport Layer Security), use public-key cryptography to secure data transmitted over networks. When you connect to a secure website (one that starts with ‘https’), your browser and the server exchange public keys to create a secure communication channel. The keys are used to encrypt and decrypt the data exchanged, keeping your sensitive information, like passwords and credit card numbers, safe from prying eyes.

And who can forget about emails? Public-Key cryptography plays a crucial role in securing email communication through something called PGP (Pretty Good Privacy). Here, the sender uses the recipient’s public key to encrypt the message, and the recipient uses their private key to decrypt it. Just like with Bob and Alice from our previous example!

Finally, one of the recent applications of public-key cryptography today: cryptocurrency and blockchain technology. Ever heard of Bitcoin or Ethereum? They rely heavily on public-key cryptography. Every participant in the blockchain has a pair of keys. They use their private key to sign their transactions, and others in the network use the participant’s public key to verify these transactions.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Public-Key Cryptography

One of the most significant advantages of public-key cryptography is secure key distribution. Remember how we talked about symmetric cryptography’s Achilles’ heel being secure key sharing? Well, public-key cryptography has that one sorted. You can share your public key with anyone without having to worry about it falling into the wrong hands, since without the corresponding private key, the data encrypted with the public key is unreadable. Another big plus of public-key cryptography is non-repudiation. It simply means that once a sender sends an encrypted message, they can’t deny having sent it. Why? Because the message is digitally signed with their private key, which only they possess.

Now, every superhero has a kryptonite. For public-key cryptography, it’s computational inefficiency. All the mathematical gymnastics that are required to encrypt and decrypt data with two different keys use up more processing power and take more time than symmetric encryption. So, public-key cryptography isn’t usually the best choice for encrypting large amounts of data. Also, managing the keys can be a bit of a headache. If a user loses their private key, any data encrypted with the corresponding public key is lost forever. And, on the flip side, if their private key is stolen or compromised, the security of their data goes out the window. So, secure storage and management of the private key is crucial.

Conclusion

Well, folks, we’ve come a long way on our journey through the world of public-key, or asymmetric, cryptography. Understanding how it works and where it is used not only gives you a peek into the workings of the technology you use daily, but also equips you with the knowledge to navigate this digital age more securely. But remember, this is just the tip of the cryptographic iceberg. There’s a whole wide world of other cryptographic techniques and concepts out there, each with its own unique applications and quirks. Symmetric cryptography, hash functions, digital certificates, quantum cryptography – the list goes on! So, stay curious and keep learning.

About the Author:

Alex

Application Security Engineer and Red-Teamer. Over 15 years of experience in Application Security, Software Engineering and Offensive Security. OSCE3 & OSCP Certified. CTF nerd.

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