So what is cryptography? Why should you even care? I’ll see if I can answer these questions by looking at the body of knowledge and exploring its depths. Cryptography deals with protection and preservation of information in all its forms. This science has evolved dramatically over time, but its underlying goal has never changed, even though the tools have. As information has changed and human beings have gotten smarter, the technology has become substantially more advanced to keep up with changing issues and threats. If you look back in time and trace the evolution of the science up to the current day, you’ll see that technology in the form of increasingly powerful computers has made the process more complex and innovative as well as stronger.
You will encounter cryptography in many forms throughout this book. It is applied to many different technologies and situations and, as such, is something you need to have a firm grasp of.
Here are some examples of applied cryptography:
- Public key infrastructure (PKI)
- Digital certificates
- Secure Hash Algorithm (SHA)
Secure Sockets Layer (SSL)
- Pretty Good Privacy (PGP)
- Secure Shell (SSH)
In many cases, encryption technologies are not only an important part of a technology or system but also a required part that cannot be excluded. For example, e-commerce and similar systems responsible for performing financial transactions typically will include encryption technologies not only because of the protection it offers but also because it makes legal sense to do so. Introducing encryption to a system does not ensure bulletproof security because it may still be compromised—but encryption does make hackers work a little harder.
So How Does It Work?
Cryptography has many different ways of functioning. Before you can understand the basic process, you must become familiar with some terminology. With this in mind, let’s look at a few of the main terms used in the field of cryptography:
- Plain Text/Clear Text Plain text is the original message. It has not been altered; it is the usable information. Remember that even though Caesar’s cipher operates on text, it is but one form of plain text. Plain text can literally be anything.
- Cipher Text Cipher text is the opposite of plain text; it is a message or other data that has been transformed into a different format using a mechanism known as an algorithm. It is also something that can be reversed using an algorithm and a key.
- Algorithms Ciphers, the algorithms for transforming clear text into cipher text, are the trickiest and most mysterious part of the encryption process. This component sounds complex, but the algorithm or cipher is nothing more than a formula that includes discrete steps that describe how the encryption and decryption process is to be performed in a given instance.
- Keys Keys are an important, and frequently complicated, item. A key is a discrete piece of information, usually random in nature, that determines the result or output of a given cryptographic operation. A key in the cryptographic sense can be thought of in the same way a key in the physical world is: as a special item used to open or unlock something—in this case, a piece of information. In the encryption world, a key is used to produce a meaningful result and without it a result would not be possible.
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