Symmetric vs. Asymmetric Encryption

Cryptography is the art of encoding and decoding secret messages. Cryptographic techniques have been used for thousands of years, well before the introduction of computers, and the techniques have evolved since. (e.g. See how the Caesar Cipher was used by the roman empire 2000 years ago).

More recently, with the introduction of electronics and later on computer science, it has been possible to implement more advance encryption techniques based on complex mathematical calculations. (e.g. See Alan Turing’s work on breaking codes encrypted by the Germans using the Enigma Machine during World War 2).

Symmetric Encryption


At this stage, encryption techniques were based on symmetric encryption algorithms. With such algorithms a single secret key is needed to both encrypt and decrypt a message. The secret key is possessed by both parties involved in the communication, the sender and the receiver.

Symmetric Encryption: The same cryptographic key is used both to encrypt and decrypt messages.

Symmetric Encryption: The same cryptographic key is used both to encrypt and decrypt messages.

The following algorithms use Symmetric Encryption: RC4, AES, DES, 3DES, QUA.

Symmetric keys are usually 128 or 256 bits long. The larger the key size, the harder the key is to crack. For example, a 128-bit key has around 340,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 encryption code possibilities. This means that a brute force attack (trying every possible key until you find the right one) is no longer a realistic approach to crack such a key.

Asymmetric Encryption


In today’s digital world, there has been a need to develop a different approach to encryption, called asymmetric encryption. With this approach a pair of linked keys is used and consists of a public key, used to encrypt data and a private key used to decrypt data. Both keys are different (but related). The public key, is available to everyone who wishes to send a message. On the other hand, the private key is kept at a secure place by the owner of the public key.

Asymmetric Encryption: A public key is used to encrypt plaintext into ciphertext whereas a private key is used to decrypt a ciphertext.

Asymmetric Encryption: A public key is used to encrypt plaintext into ciphertext whereas a private key is used to decrypt a ciphertext.

As they involve a pair of keys, asymmetric algorithms tend to be more complex to implement (and slightly slower to execute) than symmetric algorithms. The following algorithms use Asymmetric Encryption: RSA, Diffie-Hellman, ECC, El Gamal, DSA.

Asymmetric keys are typically 1024 or 2048 bits long which leads to 21024 or 22048 encryption codes. (We did not even try to write these numbers down as they would contain several hundreds digits!)

HTTPS and the SSL Handshake


On the internet, a lot of websites are now using the HTTPS protocol. This means that the communication between the web browser and the web server is encrypted in both directions (data being uploaded, such as your credit card number when you pay online, as well as data that is downloaded: the HTML code, the images and video clips, etc. that appear on a webpage).

The HTPPS protocol uses SSL (Secure Sockets Layer), a standard security technology to create an encrypted link between a server and a client.

The following steps describe the process of creating a secure connection between a web browser and a web server. It is called the SSL handshake and uses both symmetric encryption and asymmetric encryption:
SSL-Handshake

To recap, the 5 steps of a SSL handshake are:

  1. Browser sends an https://www… request.
  2. Web Server sends a digital certificate with its asymmetric Public Key.
  3. Browser generates a symmetric session key, encrypts it using the public key and sends it to the server.
  4. Server decrypts the encrypted session key using its asymmetric private key to get the symmetric session key.
  5. Server and Browser now encrypt and decrypt all transmitted data using the symmetric session key. The communication channel is secure as only the web browser and the server know the symmetric session key. The session key is only used for that session. If the browser was to connect to the same server at another time, a new session key would be created following the 5 steps of the SSL handshake.

Symmetric vs. Asymmetric Encryption


Check our online symmetric and asymmetric encryption tools:
Symmetric EncryptionAsymmetric Encryption
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