What are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Public-Key Cryptography Compared with Secret-Key Cryptography?

The primary advantage of public-key cryptography is increased security and convenience: private keys never need to transmitted or revealed to anyone. In a secret-key system, by contrast, the secret keys must be transmitted (either manually or through a communication channel), and there may be a chance that an enemy can discover the secret keys during their transmission.

Another major advantage of public-key systems is that they can provide a method for digital signatures. Authentication via secret-key systems requires the sharing of some secret and sometimes requires trust of a third party as well. As a result, a sender can repudiate a previously authenticated message by claiming that the shared secret was somehow compromised (see Question 113) by one of the parties sharing the secret. For example, the Kerberos secret-key authentication system (see Question 144) involves a central database that keeps copies of the secret keys of all users; an attack on the database would allow widespread forgery. Public-key authentication, on the other hand, prevents this type of repudiation; each user has sole responsibility for protecting his or her private key. This property of public-key authentication is often called non-repudiation.

A disadvantage of using public-key cryptography for encryption is speed: there are popular secret-key encryption methods that are significantly faster than any currently available public-key encryption method. Nevertheless, public-key cryptography can be used with secret-key cryptography to get the best of both worlds. For encryption, the best solution is to combine public- and secret-key systems in order to get both the security advantages of public-key systems and the speed advantages of secret-key systems. The public-key system can be used to encrypt a secret key which is used to encrypt the bulk of a file or message. Such a protocol is called a digital envelope, which is explained in more detail in Question 16 in the case of RSA.

Public-key cryptography may be vulnerable to impersonation, however, even if users' private keys are not available. A successful attack on a certification authority (see Question 127) will allow an adversary to impersonate whomever the adversary chooses to by using a public-key certificate from the compromised authority to bind a key of the adversary's choice to the name of another user.

In some situations, public-key cryptography is not necessary and secret-key cryptography alone is sufficient. This includes environments where secure secret-key agreement can take place, for example by users meeting in private. It also includes environments where a single authority knows and manages all the keys, e.g., a closed banking system. Since the authority knows everyone's keys already, there is not much advantage for some to be "public" and others "private." Also, public-key cryptography is usually not necessary in a single-user environment. For example, if you want to keep your personal files encrypted, you can do so with any secret-key encryption algorithm using, say, your personal password as the secret key. In general, public-key cryptography is best suited for an open multi-user environment.

Public-key cryptography is not meant to replace secret-key cryptography, but rather to supplement it, to make it more secure. The first use of public-key techniques was for secure key exchange in an otherwise secret-key system [DH76]; this is still one of its primary functions. Secret-key cryptography remains extremely important and is the subject of much ongoing study and research. Some secret-key cryptosystems are discussed in the sections on block ciphers and stream ciphers.

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