Programming .NET Security : Symmetric Encryption Explained (part 1) - Creating the Encrypted Data

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Symmetric encryption is the oldest and most established way of ensuring message confidentiality, dating back for many thousands of years. Figure 1 illustrates the basic approach, which is as follows:
  1. Alice and Bob agree on a secret key.

  2. Alice composes a confidential message to Bob and encrypts it using the secret key.

  3. Alice sends the encrypted data to Bob.

  4. Bob uses the secret key to decrypt the encrypted data, and reads the confidential message.

The most important aspect of symmetric encryption is that Alice and Bob agree on a secret key without Eve eavesdropping. If Eve acquires the secret key, she will be able to read, modify. and forge messages between Alice and Bob. The traditional means of agreeing on secret key has been to meet in person at a private location, or to rely on a secure and trusted courier service, both of which can be difficult to arrange securely.

Figure 1. Alice and Bob use symmetric encryption to ensure message confidentiality

1. Creating the Encrypted Data

At the heart of a symmetric encryption algorithm is a cipher function that transforms fixed-size blocks of message data, known as plaintext, into blocks of encrypted data, known as ciphertext, illustrated by Figure 2. This type of function is a block cipher, because it processes blocks of data sequentially and independently. The output of a block ciphers is deterministic; this means that a given block of plaintext encrypted using a given key will always result in the same block of ciphertext. Different block ciphers process differently sized blocks of plaintext.

Figure 2. A cipher function uses a secret key and a fixed-size message block to create a block of ciphertext

You can restore a block of plaintext from a block of ciphertext by reversing the transformation, as illustrated by Figure 3. Both the transformation into ciphertext and the restoration of the plaintext require the secret key; therefore, Bob can decrypt the data only if he uses the same secret key that Alice used to encrypt the message. Creating a hash code is a "one-way" process, and the original message data cannot be determined from the hash code data easily.

Figure 3. Cipher functions also transform ciphertext back into plaintext, which is known as decryption

An encryption algorithm is the protocol for using a cipher function to encrypt plaintext, in the same way that a hashing algorithm specifies how to use a hash function to create a hash code. The algorithm specifies how the plaintext is broken into blocks and how to use the output of the cipher function in creating the ciphertext; the details of how to perform these tasks differ between algorithms.

On a practical basis, the .NET Framework provides a standardized model for using symmetric encryption algorithms, and you do not have to understand the inner workings of any specific block ciphers. However, you should understand some of the different ways that you can configure an algorithm, which we discuss in the following sections.

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