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Understanding the Differences Between Symmetric and Asymmetric Encryption

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This brief article presents a discussion on two popular encryption — Symmetric and Asymmetric Encryption — schemes that can be used to tighten digital communication security.

Over the years, Information security has grown exponentially especially with modern communication networks. Data breaches and data-tampering incidents have also increased due to the findings of cyber-crooks to attack networks and online users. In order to minimize such incidents, securing information has become an indispensable process in cybersecurity. Encryption is one such method to protect discreet information being transferred online. Further, the encryption techniques employed in two ways, namely Symmetric Encryption and Asymmetric Encryption is used to secure information/data in the cyber-world.

Basic Concepts
Before getting to the difference between Symmetric and Asymmetric encryption, let’s understand the concepts first.

Encryption is the process of scrambling data to make sure unintended recipients are not able to make any sense of the data. Today’s encryption techniques are much more complex and advanced. 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. And thus the two common encryption types are the symmetric and asymmetric encryption.

Symmetric Encryption
This is said to be the simplest and best-known encryption technique. As discussed already, it uses one key for both encryption and decryption. Because the algorithm behind symmetric encryption is less complex and executes faster, this is the preferred technique when transmitting data in bulk. The plaintext is encrypted using a key, and the same key is used at the receiving end to decrypt the received ciphertext. The host in the communication process would have received the key through external means. Widely used symmetric encryption algorithms include AES-128, AES-192, and AES-256.

Asymmetric Encryption
Asymmetric encryption is relatively new and is also referred to as public-key cryptography. Asymmetric encryption uses two keys for the process and the public key used for encryption is available to everyone but the private key is not disclosed. This encryption method is used in everyday communication over the internet. When a message is encrypted using a public key, it can only be decrypted using a private key. However, when a message is encrypted using a private key, it can be decrypted using a public key.

Digital certificates in the client-server model can be used to discover public keys. The drawback of this encryption is that it takes more time than the symmetric encryption process. Common asymmetric encryption techniques include RSA, DSA, and PKCS.

Key Differences
Symmetric encryption is an old technique, while asymmetric encryption is the newer one. The basic difference between these two types of encryption is that symmetric encryption uses one key for both encryption and decryption, and the asymmetric encryption uses public key for encryption and a private key for decryption.

Asymmetric encryption takes longer to execute because of the complex logic involved. For this reason, symmetric encryption is used when transmitting data in bulk. Asymmetric data is more secure because it uses different keys for the encryption and decryption process.

While both of these have their own pros and cons, asymmetric encryption is definitely a better choice from the security perspective.

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