The importance of encryption

Feb 6 JDN 2459617

In last week’s post I told you of the compounding failures of cryptocurrency, which largely follow from the fact that it is very bad at being, well, currency. It doesn’t have a steady, predictable value, it isn’t easy to make payments with, and it isn’t accepted for most purchases.

But I realized that I haven’t ever gotten around to explaining anything about the crypto side of things—just what is encryption, and why does it matter?

At its core, encryption is any technique designed to disguise information so that it can be seen only by its intended viewers. Humans have been using some form of encryption since shortly after we invented writing—though, like any technology, our encryption has greatly improved over time.

Encryption involves converting a plaintext, the information you want to keep secret, into a ciphertext, a disguised form, using a key that is kept secret and can be used to convert the ciphertext back into plaintext. Decryption is the opposite process, extracting the plaintext from the ciphertext.

Some of the first forms of encryption were simple substitution ciphers: Have a set of rules that substitutes different letters for the original letters, such as “A becomes D, B becomes Q” and so on. This works pretty well, actually; but if each letter in the ciphertext always corresponds to the same letter in the plaintext, then you can look for patterns that would show up in text. For instance, E is usually the most common letter, so if you see a lot of three-letter sequences like BFP and P is a really common letter, odds are good that BFP is really THE and so you can guess that B=T, F=H, P=E.

More sophisticated ciphers tried to solve this problem by changing the substitution pattern as they go. The Enigma used by Nazi Germany was essentially this: It had a complex electrical and mechanical apparatus dedicated to changing the substitution rules with each key-press, in a manner that would be unpredictable to an outside observer but could be readily reproduced by using another Enigma machine. (Of course, it wasn’t actually as secure as they thought.)

For most of history, people have used what’s called private-key encryption, where there is a single key using for both encryption and decryption. In that case, you need to keep the key secret: If someone were to get their hands on it, they could easily decrypt all of your messages.

This is a problem, because with private-key encryption, you need to give the key to the person you want to read the message. And if there is a safe way to send the key, well… why couldn’t you send the message that way?

In the late 20th century mathematicians figured out an alternative, public-key encryption, which uses two keys: A private key, used to decrypt, and a new, public key, which can be used to encrypt. The public key is called “public” because you don’t need to keep it secret. You can hand it out to anyone, and they can encrypt messages with it. Those messages will be readable by you and you alone—for only you have the private key.

With most methods of public-key encryption, senders can even use their private key to prove to you that they are the person who sent the message, known as authentication. They encrypt it using their private key and your public key, and then you decrypt it using their public key and your private key.

This is great! It means that anyone can send messages to anyone else, and everyone will know not only that their information is safe, but also who it came from. You never have to transmit the private keys at all. Problem solved.


We now use public-key encryption for all sorts of things, particularly online: Online shopping, online banking, online tax filing. It’s not hard to imagine how catastrophic it could be if all of these forms of encryption were to suddenly fail.

In next week’s post, I’m going to talk about why I’m worried that something like that could one day happen, and what we might do in order to make sure it doesn’t. Stay tuned.

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