What is Public-Key Cryptography?

Traditional cryptography is based on the sender and receiver of a message knowing and using the same secret key: the sender uses the secret key to encrypt the message, and the receiver uses the same secret key to decrypt the message. This method is known as secret-key or symmetric cryptography. The main problem is getting the sender and receiver to agree on the secret key without anyone else finding out. If they are in separate physical locations, they must trust a courier, or a phone system, or some other transmission medium to prevent the disclosure of the secret key being communicated. Anyone who overhears or intercepts the key in transit can later read, modify, and forge all messages encrypted or authenticated using that key. The generation, transmission and storage of keys is called key management; all cryptosystems must deal with key management issues. Because all keys in a secret-key cryptosystem must remain secret, secret-key cryptography often has difficulty providing secure key management, especially in open systems with a large number of users.

The concept of public-key cryptography was introduced in 1976 by Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman [DH76] in order to solve the key management problem. In their concept, each person gets a pair of keys, one called the public key and the other called the private key. Each person's public key is published while the private key is kept secret. The need for the sender and receiver to share secret information is eliminated: all communications involve only public keys, and no private key is ever transmitted or shared. No longer is it necessary to trust some communications channel to be secure against eavesdropping or betrayal. The only requirement is that public keys are associated with their users in a trusted (authenticated) manner (for instance, in a trusted directory). Anyone can send a confidential message by just using public information, but the message can only be decrypted with a private key, which is in the sole possession of the intended recipient. Furthermore, public-key cryptography can be used not only for privacy (encryption), but also for authentication (digital signatures).


When Alice wishes to send a secret message to Bob, she looks up Bob's public key in a directory, uses it to encrypt the message and sends it off. Bob then uses his private key to decrypt the message and read it. No one listening in can decrypt the message. Anyone can send an encrypted message to Bob but only Bob can read it. Clearly, one requirement is that no one can figure out the private key from the corresponding public key.

Digital Signatures

To sign a message, Alice does a computation involving both her private key and the message itself; the output is called the digital signature and is attached to the message, which is then sent. Bob, to verify the signature, does some computation involving the message, the purported signature, and Alice's public key. If the result properly holds in a simple mathematical relation, the signature is verified as being genuine; otherwise, the signature may be fraudulent or the message might have been altered.

A good history of public-key cryptography is given by Diffie [Dif88].

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