If you look at the history of encryption, you will begin to appreciate that encryption methodologies have been around for centuries with varying rates of success. Coded communications were sent out by Kings, Statesmen and people who did not want their messages read by all and sundry. An encryption decoding key was often sent separately to the recipient to enable him to decode the message. However, history shows that there was a thriving parallel coterie of men who specialized in decoding coded messages. Codes were often broken and newer methods of encoding had to be found. Coders/decoders had to remain one step ahead of each other. Even today, the situation is no different.

In a back to the basics effort let us understand what encryption means and how it is implemented.

A simple definition of encryption is: Encryption is a process of coding information into cipher text that is unreadable without a decoding key. A definition of decryption would be the reverse: A process of reading a coded cipher text with the help of a key.

The key in cryptography is a long sequence of bits that is used in the encryption algorithm. Computer based encryption keys use the 0 and 1 in innovative mathematical ways to achieve the required encryption algorithm. The decryption key performs the reverse operation on the text and renders encoded text into plain text that is readable.

Success of an encryption methodology is incumbent on a number of other factors of the cryptographic system such as use of different cipher modes in coordination with initialization vectors and salt values. The cipher mode can affect the speed of encryption. While some cipher modes encrypt one bit at a time and is faster, other cipher modes encode one block at a time and is slower.

Modern cryptographists categorize encryption protocols into three distinct types: symmetric encryption, public key encryption and hash functions.

Symmetric encryption uses the same key for encryption and decryption of data. The key is named a session key. The most widely used symmetric key cryptographic system is the Data Encryption Standard (DES) that was published by the National Bureau of Standards. It uses a 56-bit key and can be implemented in hardware for speed of encryption and decryption. The larger the key, the safer is the encryption. Variations of this system are the Triple DES or DES-EDE which uses two independent DES keys to produce a 168 bit key length. The International Data Encryption Algorithm, invested by James Massey and Xuejia Lai in 1991 is another Symmetric encryption/decryption algorithm. It uses a fixed 128 bit key and is faster than Triple DES. The RC2 and RC4 encryption algorithms popularized by Don Rivest uses a variable length key to encrypt data. The weakness in Symmetric encryption is key management. Since the same key is used for encryption and decryption, it is very vulnerable in that it must be available with both the sender and the receiver and loss of the key can result in the data becoming unreadable.

Public encryption is an encryption/decryption protocol that uses one key for encryption and another key for decryption. The encoding key is known as the public key and is widely known. The decrypting key is a private key and is only known to the person who is authorized to decode the message. RSA is a widely used public/private key algorithm and was invented by Ronald L.Rivest, Adi Shamir and Leonard M. Adleman. The keys are created by factoring the product of two very large prime numbers. The encryption is used on the whole message or block of data.

The El Gamal is another public/private key algorithm that uses what is known as a discrete logarithm problem methodology in the creation of the keys.

Hash function is a one way function that is easy to calculate but hard to invert. Hash functions are also sometimes referred to as digital fingerprints. The easy and hard are mathematically defined. In many applications this function is evaluated in terms of their ability to withstand unauthorized assault. Cryptographic hash functions include MD5 and SHA-1 algorithms which were considered difficult to break algorithms. However, these algorithms too, were shown to be insecure in 2005.

The bottom line is that all encryption codes can be broken given the time and cryptographic skill. It follows, that your encrypted data is safe only so long as no one breaks the code and accesses your data without your knowledge.

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