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Monday, August 08, 2005
  blackhole- How cryptology plays a role in our lives

Oblivious to most of us, cryptology is very much part and parcel of our daily life. It is the means by which we are able to keep protect our privacy and keep our secrets safe in the current computer era.

When we buy products from online stores and are asked for our credit card information and other private stuff like our mother’s maiden name, this information is kept secret by using cryptology techniques.

Data security means cryptology. So, what is cryptology all about? Why the term so strange and yet so widely in use without our knowing it? Let’s do a bit of history talk.

Cryptology comes from the Greek words krytos , which means hidden, and logons, which means science. It is the science of keeping meaning and information secret. It has been used since the ancient times and during the World Wars.

The post-World War 2 era signaled the dawn of modern cryptology, where computers became a vital part of cryptology, and breaking cryptology.

Cryptology had advanced so rapidly and these days we have so many interesting yet at times paradoxical techniques that allow us to do all sorts of things via the computer and the Internet.

Some of those worth mentioning are sharing secrets over an insecure communication medium (key agreement), locking with one key that can then only be unlocked by another key (public key systems), playing mental poker, signing documents blinding (blind digital signatures), and proving that you know a secret without disclosing what that secret is (zero knowledge).

So, cryptology is a science that allows one to play with mathematics to invent many fascinating techniques that are possible in the digital computer world but that would otherwise be impossible in the real world.

Cryptology everywhere

Let’s view cryptology from the perspective of normal person’s everyday interactions with his surroundings, especially by using the computer. Cryptology allows for confidentiality, that is keeping our secrets confidential and only known to people we believe. This is done via the cryptology technique call encryption and supported (though not activated by default) by almost all e-mail client software.

E-mail is so common these days – it is one of the most frequently used modes of communication. So if we want our email to be readable by the intended recipients, then we have to enable the encryption feature in our e-mail clients.

But then how do we share with the recipient the password (more often called a key) we use for encryption? If we e-mailed the password to him, it may be intercepted. If we called him up to tell him, the phone line could be tapped. This is the main problem that was only solved in 1976 by two Stanford University researchers, Diffie and Hellman. The solution is called key agreement.

Is it possible to prove to someone who you really are, without being in the same physical place as he is? Conventionally, we prove our identity via face recognition or our thumbprint, but these no longer apply in the computer world.

Motivated by the work of Diffie and Hellman, three researchers form the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - Rivest, Shamir, and Adlemen – invented the RSA public key method to solve this.

The RSA not only supports unconventional encryption that allows the use of one key to encrypt (lock) and another different key to unlock, but can also be used as a digital signature, very much similar to conventional handwritten signatures that can be used to prove our identity.

-encrypt all you outbound data-

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