Definition

cryptography

Cryptography is the science of information security. The word is derived from the Greek kryptos, meaning hidden. Cryptography is closely related to the disciplines of cryptology and cryptanalysis. Cryptography includes techniques such as microdots, merging words with images, and other ways to hide information in storage or transit. However, in today's computer-centric world, cryptography is most often associated with scrambling plaintext (ordinary text, sometimes referred to as cleartext) into ciphertext (a process called encryption), then back again (known as decryption). Individuals who practice this field are known as cryptographers.

Modern cryptography concerns itself with the following four objectives:

1) Confidentiality (the information cannot be understood by anyone for whom it was unintended)

2) Integrity (the information cannot be altered in storage or transit between sender and intended receiver without the alteration being detected)

3) Non-repudiation (the creator/sender of the information cannot deny at a later stage his or her intentions in the creation or transmission of the information)

4) Authentication (the sender and receiver can confirm each other?s identity and the origin/destination of the information)

Procedures and protocols that meet some or all of the above criteria are known as cryptosystems. Cryptosystems are often thought to refer only to mathematical procedures and computer programs; however, they also include the regulation of human behavior, such as choosing hard-to-guess passwords, logging off unused systems, and not discussing sensitive procedures with outsiders.

The origin of cryptography is usually dated from about 2000 BC, with the Egyptian practice of hieroglyphics. These consisted of complex pictograms, the full meaning of which was only known to an elite few. The first known use of a modern cipher was by Julius Caesar (100 BC to 44 BC), who did not trust his messengers when communicating with his governors and officers. For this reason, he created a system in which each character in his messages was replaced by a character three positions ahead of it in the Roman alphabet.

In recent times, cryptography has turned into a battleground of some of the world's best mathematicians and computer scientists. The ability to securely store and transfer sensitive information has proved a critical factor in success in war and business.

Because governments do not wish certain entities in and out of their countries to have access to ways to receive and send hidden information that may be a threat to national interests, cryptography has been subject to various restrictions in many countries, ranging from limitations of the usage and export of software to the public dissemination of mathematical concepts that could be used to develop cryptosystems. However, the Internet has allowed the spread of powerful programs and, more importantly, the underlying techniques of cryptography, so that today many of the most advanced cryptosystems and ideas are now in the public domain.

Contributor(s): Borys Pawliw
This was last updated in January 2009
Posted by: Margaret Rouse

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