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5.2: Terminology

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    The first use of the term "cryptograph" (as opposed to "cryptogram") dates back to the 19th century—originating from "The Gold-Bug," a story by Edgar Allan Poe.

    Until modern times, cryptography referred almost exclusively to "encryption", which is the process of converting ordinary information (called plaintext) into an unintelligible form (called ciphertext). Decryption is the reverse, in other words, moving from the unintelligible ciphertext back to plaintext. A cipher (or cypher) is a pair of algorithms that carry out the encryption and the reversing decryption. The detailed operation of a cipher is controlled both by the algorithm and, in each instance, by a "key". The key is a secret (ideally known only to the communicants), usually a string of characters (ideally short so it can be remembered by the user), which is needed to decrypt the ciphertext. In formal mathematical terms, a "cryptosystem" is the ordered list of elements of finite possible plaintexts, finite possible cyphertexts, finite possible keys, and the encryption and decryption algorithms that correspond to each key. Keys are important both formally and in actual practice, as ciphers without variable keys can be trivially broken with only the knowledge of the cipher used and are therefore useless (or even counter-productive) for most purposes. Historically, ciphers were often used directly for encryption or decryption without additional procedures such as authentication or integrity checks.

    There are two main types of cryptosystems: symmetric and asymmetric. In symmetric systems, the only ones known until the 1970s, the same secret key encrypts and decrypts a message. Data manipulation in symmetric systems is significantly faster than in asymmetric systems. Asymmetric systems use a "public key" to encrypt a message and a related "private key" to decrypt it. The advantage of asymmetric systems is that the public key can be freely published, allowing parties to establish secure communication without having a shared secret key. In practice, asymmetric systems are used to first exchange a secret key, and then secure communication proceeds via a more efficient symmetric system using that key. Insecure symmetric algorithms include children's language tangling schemes such as Pig Latin or other cant, and all historical cryptographic schemes, however seriously intended, prior to the invention of the one-time pad early in the 20th century.

    In colloquial use, the term "code" is often used to mean any method of encryption or concealment of meaning. However, in cryptography, code has a more specific meaning: the replacement of a unit of plaintext (i.e., a meaningful word or phrase) with a code word (for example, "wallaby" replaces "attack at dawn"). A cypher, in contrast, is a scheme for changing or substituting an element below such a level (a letter, a syllable, or a pair of letters, etc.) in order to produce a cyphertext.

    Cryptanalysis is the term used for the study of methods for obtaining the meaning of encrypted information without access to the key normally required to do so; i.e., it is the study of how to "crack" encryption algorithms or their implementations.

    Some use the terms "cryptography" and "cryptology" interchangeably in English, while others (including US military practice generally) use "cryptography" to refer specifically to the use and practice of cryptographic techniques and "cryptology" to refer to the combined study of cryptography and cryptanalysis. English is more flexible than several other languages in which "cryptology" (done by cryptologists) is always used in the second sense above. RFC 2828 advises that steganography is sometimes included in cryptology.

    The study of characteristics of languages that have some application in cryptography or cryptology (e.g. frequency data, letter combinations, universal patterns, etc.) is called cryptolinguistics.

    Adapted from: 
    "Cryptography" by Multiple AuthorsWikipedia is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

    This page titled 5.2: Terminology is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Patrick McClanahan.

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