As the world becomes increasingly digital, the need for security has become ever more imperative. That’s where cryptography and its applications to cybersecurity come in.
Essentially, the word refers to the study of secure communications techniques, but cryptography is closely associated with encryption, or the act of scrambling ordinary text into what’s known as ciphertext—and then back again into ordinary text (called plaintext) when it arrives at its destination. Several historical figures have been credited with creating and using cryptography through the centuries, from Greek historian Polybios and French diplomat Blaise de Vigenère to Roman Emperor Julius Caesar—who is credited with using one of the first modern ciphers—and Arthur Scherbius, who created the Enigma code-breaking machine during World War Two. Likely, none of them would recognize the ciphers of the 21st century. But exactly what is cryptography? And, how does it work?
Cryptography is the technique of obfuscating or coding data, ensuring that only the person who is meant to see the information–and has the key to break the code–can read it. The word is a hybrid of two Greek words: “kryptós”, which means hidden, and “graphein”, which means to write. Literally, the word cryptography translates to hidden writing, but in reality, the practice involves the secure transmission of information.
The use of cryptography can be traced to the ancient Egyptians and their creative use of hieroglyphics. But, the art of coding has seen great strides over the millennia, and modern cryptography combines advanced computer technology, engineering, and maths—among other disciplines—to create highly sophisticated and secure algorithms and ciphers to protect sensitive data in the digital era.
For example, cryptography is used to create various types of encryption protocols that are regularly used to protect data. These include 128-bit or 256-bit encryption, Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), and Transport Layer Security (TLS). These encryption protocols protect all manner of digital information and data, from passwords and emails to ecommerce and banking transactions.
There are different cryptographic types, which are useful for different purposes. For example, the simplest is symmetric key cryptography. Here, data is encrypted using a secret key, and then both the encoded message and the secret key are sent to the recipient for decryption. Of course, the problem here is that if the message is intercepted, the third party can easily decode the message and steal the information.
To create a more secure system of encoding, cryptologists devised asymmetric cryptography, which is sometimes known as the “public key” system. In this instance, all users have two keys: one public and one private. When creating a coded message, the sender will request the recipient’s public key to encode the message. This way, only the intended recipient’s private key will decode it. This way, even if the message is intercepted, a third party cannot decode it.
Cryptography is an essential cybersecurity tool. Its use means that data and users have an additional layer of security that ensures privacy and confidentiality and helps keep data from being stolen by cybercriminals. In practice, cryptography has many applications:
Interest in the use of cryptography grew with the development of computers and their connections over an open network. Over time, it became obvious that there was a need to protect information from being intercepted or manipulated while being transmitted over this network. IBM was an early pioneer in this field, releasing its “Lucifer” encryption in the 1960s—this eventually became the first Data Encryption Standard (DES).
As our lives become increasingly digital, the need for cryptography to secure massive amounts of sensitive information has become even more imperative. Now, there are many ways in which cryptography is crucial in the online space. Encryption is an essential part of being online, since so much sensitive data is transmitted everyday. Here are a few real-life applications:
Cryptography definitions are, understandably, quite broad. This is because the term covers a wide range of different processes. As such, there are many different types of cryptographic algorithms, each one offering varying levels of security, depending on the type of information being transmitted. Below are the three main cryptographic types:
From the above, it is clear that the main difference in symmetric and asymmetric encryption in cryptography is that the first only involves one key while the second requires two.
Symmetric encryption is sometimes called secret key cryptography because one single—purportedly—secret key is used to encrypt and decrypt information. There are several forms of this type of cryptography, including:
Asymmetric cryptography—sometimes referred to as public-key encryption—hinges on the fact that the receiver has two keys in play: a public one and a private one. The first is used by the sender to encode the information, while the receiver uses the latter—which only they have—to securely decrypt the message.
Asymmetric key cryptography encrypts and decrypts messages using algorithms. These are based on various mathematical principles, such as multiplication or factorization—multiplying two big prime numbers to generate one massive, random number which is incredibly tricky to crack—or exponentiation and logarithms, which create exceptionally complex numbers that are nearly impossible to decrypt, such as in 256-bit encryption. There are different types of asymmetric key algorithms, such as:
As with most technologies, cryptography has become increasingly sophisticated. But that does not mean that these encryptions cannot be broken. If the keys are compromised, it is possible for an external party to crack the coding and read the protected data. Here are a few potential issues to watch for:
There are also specific cryptography attacks designed to break through encryptions by finding the right key. Here are some of the common:
There are a few ways in which individuals and organizations can try and lower the possibility of a cryptographic attack. Essentially, this involves ensuring the proper management of keys so that they are less likely to be intercepted by a third party, or useable even if they do. Here are a few suggestions:
Most people will not need to have more than a basic understanding of what cryptography is. But learning the cryptography definition, how the process works, and its applications to cybersecurity, can be useful in being more mindful about managing day-to-day digital interactions. This can help most people keep their emails, passwords, online purchases, and online banking transactions—all of which use cryptography in their security features—more secure.
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