Symmetric Encryption

8/31/2010 3:28:28 PM

Symmetric ciphers are cryptosystems that use the same key to encrypt and decrypt messages. The encryption and decryption process is generally faster than with asymmetric encryption, but key distribution can be difficult.

These ciphers are generally either block ciphers or stream ciphers. A block cipher operates on blocks of a fixed size, usually 64 or 128 bits. The same block of plaintext will always encrypt to the same ciphertext block, using the same key. DES, Blowfish, and AES (Rijndael) are all block ciphers. Stream ciphers generate a stream of pseudo-random bits, usually either one bit or byte at a time. This is called the keystream, and it is XORed with the plaintext. This is useful for encrypting continuous streams of data. RC4 and LSFR are examples of popular stream ciphers.

DES and AES are both popular block ciphers. A lot of thought goes into the construction of block ciphers to make them resistant to known cryptanalytical attacks. Two concepts used repeatedly in block ciphers are confusion and diffusion. Confusion refers to methods used to hide relationships between the plaintext, the ciphertext, and the key. This means that the output bits must involve some complex transformation of the key and plaintext. Diffusionserves to spread the influence of the plaintext bits and the key bits over as much of the ciphertext as possible. Product ciphers combine both of these concepts by using various simple operations repeatedly. Both DES and AES are product ciphers.

DES also uses a Feistel network. It is used in many block ciphers to ensure that the algorithm is invertible. Basically, each block is divided into two halves, left (L) and right (R). Then, in one round of operation, the new left half (Li) is set to be equal to the old right half (Ri-1), and the new right half (Ri) is made up of the old left half (Li-1) XORed with the output of a function using the old right half (Ri-1) and the subkey for that round (Ki). Usually, each round of operation has a separate subkey, which is calculated earlier.

The values for Li and Ri are as follows (the circled plus symbol denotes the XOR operation):

Li = Ri-1
Ri = Li-1 circled plus f(Ri-1, Ki)

DES uses 16 rounds of operation. This number was specifically chosen to defend against differential cryptanalysis. DES's only real known weakness is its key size. Since the key is only 56 bits, the entire keyspace can be checked in an exhaustive brute-force attack in a few weeks on specialized hardware.

Triple-DES fixes this problem by using two DES keys concatenated together for a total key size of 112 bits. Encryption is done by encrypting the plaintext block with the first key, then decrypting with the second key, and then encrypting again with the first key. Decryption is done analogously, but with the encryption and decryption operations switched. The added key size makes a brute-force effort exponentially more difficult.

Most industry-standard block ciphers are resistant to all known forms of cryptanalysis, and the key sizes are usually too big to attempt an exhaustive brute-force attack. However, quantum computation provides some interesting possibilities, which are generally overhyped.

Lov Grover's Quantum Search Algorithm

Quantum computation gives the promise of massive parallelism. A quantum computer can store many different states in a superposition (which can be thought of as an array) and perform calculations on all of them at once. This is ideal for brute forcing anything, including block ciphers. The superposition can be loaded up with every possible key, and then the encryption operation can be performed on all the keys at the same time. The tricky part is getting the right value out of the superposition. Quantum computers are weird in that when the superposition is looked at, the whole thing decoheres into a single state. Unfortunately, this decoherence is initially random, and the odds of decohering into each state in the superposition are equal.

Without some way to manipulate the odds of the superposition states, the same effect could be achieved by just guessing keys. Fortuitously, a man named Lov Grover came up with an algorithm that can manipulate the odds of the superposition states. This algorithm allows the odds of a certain desired state to increase while the others decrease. This process is repeated several times until the decohering of the superposition into the desired state is nearly guaranteed. This takes about steps.

Using some basic exponential math skills, you will notice that this just effectively halves the key size for an exhaustive brute-force attack. So, for the ultra paranoid, doubling the key size of a block cipher will make it resistant to even the theoretical possibilities of an exhaustive brute-force attack with a quantum computer.

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