The most commonly used implementations of public-key encryption are based on algorithms patented by RSA Data Security. Therefore, this section describes the RSA approach to public-key encryption.
Public-key encryption (also called asymmetric encryption) involves a pair of keys—a public key and a private key—associated with an entity that needs to authenticate its identity electronically or to sign or encrypt data. Each public key is published, and the corresponding private key is kept secret. The following figure shows a simplified view of the way public-key encryption works.
Public—key encryption lets you distribute a public key, and only you can read data encrypted by this key. In general, to send encrypted data to someone, you encrypt the data with that person’s public key, and the person receiving the encrypted data decrypts it with the corresponding private key.
Compared with symmetric-key encryption, public-key encryption requires more computation and is therefore not always appropriate for large amounts of data. However, it’s possible to use public-key encryption to send a symmetric key, which can then be used to encrypt additional data. This is the approach used by the SSL protocol.
As it happens, the reverse of the scheme shown in Figure 5–13 also works: data encrypted with your private key can be decrypted with your public key only. This would not be a desirable way to encrypt sensitive data, however, because it means that anyone with your public key, which is by definition published, could decrypt the data. Nevertheless, private-key encryption is useful, because it means you can use your private key to sign data with your digital signature—an important requirement for electronic commerce and other commercial applications of cryptography. Client software can then use your public key to confirm that the message was signed with your private key and that it hasn’t been tampered with since being signed. Digital Signatures and subsequent sections describe how this confirmation process works.