4 Tips for Understanding How Cryptographic Technology Works

In a society that’s become highly reliant on transmitting information through the Internet, cell phone towers, and other means for work, commerce, and personal matters, keeping that information safe becomes paramount. The single most effective way to keep data safely out of the wrong hands is through cryptography. Although this technology is a bit of a mystery to most people, there are some simple ways to explain the basics of it.

Two Varieties of Cryptography
Unlike the alternative means of transferring knowledge, steganography, that relies on hiding or disguising data to keep it secure, cryptography assumes that anyone can intercept the information. Therefore, it takes the approach of translating the data into code that only desirable parties can read. The two broad methods of cryptography are symmetric and asymmetric systems. In a symmetric system, a single key containing alpha-numeric code that informs the algorithms or mathematic formulas that constitute cryptographic software how to go about changing comprehensible messages, plaintext, into coded messages, ciphertext, is used for both encryption and decryption. With an asymmetric system, encryption and decryption use different keys.

Keys Are The Key
Both methods use keys, but there’s a big difference between them in maintaining security. With a symmetric system, keeping the single key that encrypts and decrypts from falling into the wrong hands takes a lot of effort. An asymmetric system makes key security easier since only some people in the system need to read messages, and a private decryption key only needs to be provided to them. All others in the system will just have a public key that can only encrypt information. The tradeoff is that if someone else suddenly needs access to information, there’s a delay as a new private key is created for them.

Building Layers
Over time, cryptography has become increasingly complex. For example, a simple way to encrypt a message is to assign a different letter to each letter in the alphabet to produce nonsensical text. This list of letters with their alternative representatives constitutes a key. A more complex approach is to create multiple keys as part of a cryptographic device. Then another key is used to decide which individual key is used for encoding each letter in a message. This illustration shows how adding layers can make a code harder to break, but greater complexity can increase decryption time for the intended parties.

Changing Capabilities
Current cryptographic technology uses complex math puzzles to provide protection, but changes in computer hardware always create new vulnerabilities. When processors become more powerful, seemingly unbreakable cryptography becomes decipherable to hackers.  Still, newer cryptographic technology is quite strong. For instance, RSA encryption has been successfully deciphered, but only after using multiple computers and two years of effort.