From discovering new music to learning about foreign affairs, to hearing the local sports updates: the internet is an aspect of the technological world that has been integrated into the lives of billions of people all over the world. It allows us to communicate and connect with people across the room, or across the globe, shaping the perception and structure of our everyday life.
Despite the internet being a public tool for everyone to access, private messages are relayed frequently, so how does this work?
Encryption, the process of converting information or data into a code, is used when sending private messages back and forth between people. It prevents hackers or anyone trying to intercept that information from reading the directives. There are two main kinds of encryption: symmetric and asymmetric.
Symmetric encryption uses the same code to encrypt and decrypt messages. For example, say Bobby wants to relay a secret message to Becca. Bobby scrambles the letter with a certain “key”, meaning there is a specific pattern used to encrypt his message. In order for Becca to decrypt the message and process its contents, she has to know the specific code used to encrypt it, meaning she has to have access to the key. She can also use this same key when encrypting a response to send to Bobby, considering he will be able to decrypt it using the key he possesses.
While symmetric encryption is useful when encrypting large quantities of data because of its simplicity, it results in some major problems. It is not always possible for both parties to privately agree on a key, and it would be very unreliable to send a key across the internet if it’s not encrypted because hackers can easily intercept the message. This is why asymmetric encryption is useful. This kind of encryption involves using 4 separate keys: two public and two private.
Visualize a mailbox with two keyholes: one for anyone who wants to send the person mail, and the other for the owner of the mailbox to access their mail. Pertaining to the internet, the sender uses a specific public key to encrypt a message and then sends the message to the receiver, who has a private key that’s able to decrypt the message. No one else has this private key, so no one else is able to understand the message’s contents. The same thing goes for replying: the receiver encrypts a reply with a public key and the receiver decrypts the information with a corresponding private key that only they own.
This way, people are able to send data across the internet in a much safer manner than with symmetric encryption because private keys are never required to be shared, decreasing the odds of cybercriminals discovering the encryption code.
RSA encryption is a form of asymmetric encryption that uses lengths of modular arithmetic to develop a system of two keys that correspond with each other. A set of two numbers are put into a set of problems where then two related keys are computed, and these keys are then used privately or publicly to encrypt or decrypt messages. Although RSA encryption is the most secure form, it is very inefficient and is used mainly to encipher relatively small files and loads of information.
While innovation has continued to expand uses of encryption, though, ways of combining symmetric and asymmetric types allow us to get the best of both worlds. Symmetric keys are encrypted using RSA, meaning larger amounts of data are able to be sent across browsers more efficiently and securely than ever before.
RSA isn’t 100 percent secure, though, for some of the safest encryption methods, such as 4096-bit RSA, have been cracked by researchers who listened to a computer as it decrypted some encrypted information. These security breaches display that never enough research and problem solving can be done to fully improve the security of important messages being relayed across the internet.
As we move as a society into more advanced technology, hackers and their technology do as well. We must improve the quality of our safety at a faster rate than cybercriminals can keep up with, which is not always an easy task. Encryption is a fascinating aspect of computer science and is one that directly correlates to the protection of people, making it one with intense significance. As the inventor of RSA cryptography, Adi Shamir, stated, “Crypto will not be broken, it will be bypassed.”
Written by: Cecelia Wilson
STEMpowerment Innovation is an organization aiming to educate children and teens passionate about STEM, and the various fields within it. It holds events, programs, competitions, and writes articles like this to spread knowledge about our world and help advance students throughout the world.