Cryptography: What It Is & How It Works

What is Cryptography
What is Cryptography

Encryption is critical — it secures information and data from being accessed by unauthorized people to maintain confidentiality for businesses and individuals.

Cryptography is all about encryption and decryption; we’ll look into what cryptography is, how it works, its applications in cybersecurity, and more.

Related: What Is Blockchain Technology?

Cryptography Explained

First off, what is cryptography? It’s the study of decrypting and encrypting data to keep it safe. Cryptography allows for digital data to be transmitted securely. 

Companies and individuals use cryptography to safeguard secrets, secure sensitive and classified information, and much more.

Encryption jumbles up data with various algorithms. Decryption undoes the work of encryption, making the data readable again. Both of these are fundamental components of cryptography.

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The Two Types of Cryptography

Next, let’s explore the two types of cryptography and how they work:

Symmetric Key Cryptography

Symmetric key cryptography (or secret key cryptography) encrypts data using a single key that only two parties know: The sender and receiver. No one can decipher this data without the private key.

Asymmetric Key Cryptography

Unlike symmetric key cryptography, asymmetric key cryptography (or public key cryptography) uses two keys: Public and private. The receiver of data uses a private key, while the sender uses the public key.

These two keys are mathematically-linked and encrypt and decrypt the data.

Related: Your Guide to Public and Private Keys

How Cryptography Works

The way cryptography functions revolves around different algorithms. These algorithms (or ciphers) are mathematical functions combined with keys (words, numbers, phrases, etc.) to encrypt text.

The effectiveness of cryptography ultimately depends on the secrecy level of the key and the strength of the algorithms used for encryption. 

The most effective cryptography methods use multiple complex algorithms and keys.

Common Cryptography Techniques

While cryptography can take various forms, let’s discuss the most common ones:

  • Hashing: This is a form of cryptography that converts data into a unique string. Hashing cannot be decrypted by solely using keys, and you can encrypt any form and type of data using this technique.
  • Simple codes: These codes use language to hide the meaning of a written code. They’re written in ways that make them difficult to decrypt, typically by using niche alphabets.
  • Steganography: Steganography is one of the oldest forms of cryptography. While it used to consist of methods like invisible ink, with today’s technology, it’s gotten much more sophisticated. It is now a common technique found in cryptography practices.
  • Symmetric encryption: Symmetric encryption is often used when the messages that need encrypting are large. This technique is primarily used for encrypting and decrypting electronic data using a secretary key.
  • Asymmetric encryption: As we mentioned above, asymmetric encryption uses two corresponding keys: A public and private one. This technique is typically used for encrypting and decrypting plain text.

The Two Types of Cryptography Attacks

Code on a computer screen

Alt-text: Code on a computer screen

Image source

Now, let’s discuss the two types of cryptography attacks:

Passive Cryptography Attacks

During a passive attack, intruders can see private data but likely cannot make changes or alter it in any way. Passive attacks are dangerous because of this: No one will know that the attack took place and that their data is no longer secure.

This is also called snooping or content leakage — a nonaggressive attack where unauthorized persons can view secure information without the knowledge of an individual or company.

Active Cryptography Attacks

Unlike passive attacks, intruders can alter private data during an active cryptography attack. There are various active attacks, including:

  • Masquerade attacks: During this cryptography attack, intruders will attempt to gain access to the entire network and computer system, threatening the security of entire organizations.
  • Brute force attacks: These attacks occur when hackers try to “brute force” a password by trying all possible combinations. While it works well for short passwords, it can take a long time to try every possible combination, making it impossible for strong passwords of certain lengths. It’s basically a trial and error method.
  • Dictionary attacks: These are relatively quick, easy password attacks where hackers generate thousands of possible combinations in a “dictionary” and try to match passwords with a phrase in that dictionary. And because computers can process millions of words quickly, it’s not difficult to get into systems with short, simple passwords with this attack method.

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Cryptography Applications

Cryptography has many applications across various industries, including:

  • Secure communications

A common use of cryptography is to secure communications between web browsers, email servers, etc.

Web encryption is the best example — you can choose between encrypted or “clear” versions of websites by switching between HTTPS and HTTP. Most companies use HTTPS, which encrypts data like entering your password.

  • End-to-end encryption

An area where encryption isn’t used as often is email — when a message goes from server to server to you, it’s encrypted. However, administrators can still access that data on your system and mail servers.

End-to-end encryption solves this problem, but it’s complex to implement. Truly secure messaging systems use end-to-end encryption to ensure that only two people can read a message: The sender and the recipient.

  • Storing data

Most of us store large amounts of data, and that data is valuable to us. And every operating system uses encryption to conceal system data, keep passwords secure, and ensure that patches and updates are safe.

We use encryption to secure hard drives, apps, and entire systems to keep their data secure.

Recovery seed for crypto wallet keys

Alt-text: Recovery seed for crypto wallet keys

Image source

Related: How Crypto Can Overcome Security Threats

  • Storing passwords

Remember when we mentioned hashing? One of its primary uses is to store passwords securely. Because it’s risky to store passwords in a way that’s accessible (like in plain text), encryption techniques like hashing are the best ways to keep this information safe.