Fundamental Differences between Symmetric and Asymmetric Encryption

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RapidSSLonline brings you the technical comparative breakdown of the two encryption methods

Day after day, the tally of data breaches and data-tampering incidents keeps reaching new heights. This is because cyberattackers keep evolving by finding new, delicate techniques to victimize online users. In order to counteract such attempts, safeguarding information has become an indispensable measure in today’s cybersecurity world. Encryption is one such method to protect discreet information being transferred online. The Encryption technique is employed in two ways, namely Symmetric Encryption and Asymmetric Encryption.

Before getting to the difference between Symmetric and Asymmetric encryption, let’s clear a few concepts first.

Difference explained between Symmetric and Asymmetric Encryption

Encryption & Cryptographic Keys

The roots of encryption date back to the times of the great Julius Caesar. Caesar used this technique to send his confidential messages. Caesar’s method, commonly known as Caesar’s Cipher is one of the simplest methods of encryption. Compared to it, today’s encryption techniques are much more complex and advanced. Today, extremely complex algorithms are implemented to convert sensible information into an incomprehensible format.

Once encrypted, the message/data can only be decrypted using the proper keys, known as ‘Cryptographic Keys’. Basically, a cryptographic key is a password that is used to encrypt and decrypt information. There are two types of cryptographic keys. They are known as a Symmetric Key and an Asymmetric Key.

Symmetric Encryption

Symmetric encryption is a conventional method of Encryption. It is also the simplest of two techniques. Symmetric encryption is executed by means of only one secret key known as ‘Symmetric Key’ that is possessed by both parties. This key is applied to encode and decode the information. The sender uses this key before sending the message and the receiver uses it to decipher the encoded message.

This is a pretty straightforward technique and as a result, it doesn’t take much time. When it comes to transferring huge data, symmetrical keys are preferred. Caesar’s Cipher happens to be a good example of symmetric encryption. Modern approaches of symmetric encryption are executed using algorithms such as RC4, AES, DES, 3DES, QUAD, Blowfish etc.

The most common form of symmetric encryption comes once an encrypted connection has been negotiated between a client and a server with an SSL certificate installed. Once the connection is negotiated, two 256-bit session keys are created and exchanged so that encrypted communication can occur.

Asymmetric Encryption

Asymmetric Encryption is a relatively new and complex mode of Encryption. Complex because it incorporates two cryptographic keys to implement data security. These keys are called a Public Key and a Private Key. The Public key, as the name suggests, is available to everyone who wishes to send a message. On the other hand, the private key is kept at a secure place by the owner of the public key.

The public key encrypts the information to be sent. It uses a specific algorithm in doing so. Whereas, the private key, which is in possession of the receiver, decrypts it. The Same algorithm is behind both these processes.

The involvement of two keys makes Asymmetric Encryption a complex technique. Thus, it proves to be massively beneficial in terms of data security. Diffie-Hellman and RSA algorithm are the most widely used algorithms for Asymmetric Encryption.

Side-by-side comparison of symmetric encryption and asymmetric encryption

Comparison Factor Symmetric Encryption Asymmetric Encryption
Number of Cryptographic Keys Symmetric encryption incorporates only one key for encryption as well as decryption. Asymmetric Encryption consists of two cryptographic keys. These keys are regarded as Public Key and Private Key.
Complexity Symmetric encryption is a simple technique compared to asymmetric encryption as only one key is employed to carry out both the operations. Contribution from separate keys for encryption and decryption makes it a rather complex process.
Swiftness of Execution Due to its simplistic nature, both the operations can be carried out pretty quickly. Because of encryption and decryption by two separate keys and the process of comparing them make it a tad slow procedure.
Algorithms Employed
  • RC4
  • AES
  • DES
  • 3DES
  • QUAD
  • RSA
  • Diffie-Hellman
  • ECC
  • El Gamal
  • DSA

Conclusion

Imagine a game being played by two persons (Symmetrical vs Asymmetrical) in which one tries to catch the other one. Every time the catcher comes close to the runner, the runner increases his/her speed to avoid getting caught. This is exactly what is happening in the world of cyber security right now. In this case, the runner is the developer developing new algorithms to keep the ever-improving catcher—cyber-criminal at bay. Therefore, it is a must for users to endorse the latest developments in the security industry.

External Sources

  • Foundations of Computer Security has also explained the difference between these two major encryption.
  • Description of Symmetric and Asymmetric Encryption from Microsoft.

 

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