Public key cryptography demystified

Thursday, 1 May 2003, 1:23 AM EST

As the technology of computing has become more integrated into our daily lives, information security is becoming an increasing challenge. More and more confidential personal information, legal documents, commercial transactions, and sensitive data are being transmitted over campus networks and the Internet every day.

At the same time, the network environment is becoming more hostile and vulnerable to attack. Public key technology has an important role to play in helping us protect our information and to be able to rely on the network to handle transactions of increasing value.

Public key systems enable separate parties to conduct a trusted exchange of information even if they have never met or shared no secrets beforehand.

Such systems help to address the basic problems of digital security: authentication (Are you who you say you are?); authorization (What are you allowed to do or access?); protection (You might intercept my information, but you can't decipher it.); information integrity (Can we agree that what I sent is exactly what you received?); and private channels (Can we open a communication link that others can't access and can we assure ourselves of the integrity of that channel?).

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