QotW #11: Is it possible to have a key for encryption, that cannot be used for decryption?

2011-09-30 by . 0 comments

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This week’s question of the week was asked by George Bailey, who wanted to know if it were possible to have a key for encryption that could not be used for decryption. This seems at first sight like a simple question, but underneath it there are some cryptographic truths that are interesting to look at.

Firstly, as our first answerer SteveS pointed out, the process of encrypting data according to this model is asymmetric encryption. Steve provided links to several other answers we have. First up from this list was asymmetric vs symmetric encryption. From our answers there, public key cryptography requires two keys, one that can only encrypt material and another which can decrypt material. As was observed in several answers, when compared to straightforward symmetric encryption, the requirement for the public key in public key cryptography creates a large additional burden that depends heavily on careful mathematics, while symmetric key encryption really relies on the confusion and diffusion principle outlined in Shannon’s 1949 Communication Theory of Secrecy Systems. I’ll cover some other points raised in answers later on.

A similarly excellent source of information is what are private and public key cryptography and where are they useful?

So that answered the “is it possible to have such a system” question; the next step is how. This question was asked on the SE network’s Crypto site – how does asymmetric encryption work?. In brief, in the most commonly used asymmetric encryption algorithm (RSA), the core element is a trapdoor function or permutation – a process that is relatively trivial to perform in one direction, but difficult (ideally, impossible, but we’ll discuss that in a minute) to perform in reverse, except for those who own some “insider information” — knowledge of the private key being that information. For this to work, the “insider information” must not be guessable from the outside.

This leads directly into interesting territory on our original question. The next linked answer was what is the mathematical model behind the security claims of symmetric ciphers and hash algorithms. Our accepted answer there by D.W. tells you everything you need to know – essentially, there isn’t one. We only believe these functions are secure based on the fact no vulnerability has yet been found.

The problem then becomes: are asymmetric algorithms “secure”? Let’s take RSA as example. RSA uses a trapdoor permutation, which is raising values to some exponent (e.g. 3) modulo a big non-prime integer (the modulus). Anybody can do that (well, with a computer at least). However, the reverse operation (extracting a cube root) appears to be very hard, except if you know the factorization of the modulus, in which case it becomes easy (again, using a computer). We have no actual proof that factoring the modulus is required to compute a cube root; but more of 30 years of research have failed to come up with a better way. And we have no actual proof either that integer factorization is inherently hard; but that specific problem has been studied for, at least, 2500 years, so easy integer factorization is certainly not obvious. Right now, the best known factorization algorithm is General Number Field Sieve and its cost becomes prohibitive when the modulus grows (current World record is for a 768-bit modulus). So it seems that RSA is secure (with a long enough modulus): breaking it would require to outsmart the best mathematicians in the field. Yet it is conceivable that a new mathematical advance may occur any day, leading to an easy (or at least easier) factorization algorithm. The basis for the security claim remains the same: smart people spent time thinking about it, and found no weakness.

Cryptography offers very few algorithms with mathematically proven security (e.g. One-Time Pad), let alone practical algorithms with mathematically proven security; none of them is an asymmetric encryption algorithm. There is no proof that asymmetric encryption can really exist. But there is no proof that hash functions exist, either, and it never prevented anybody from using hash functions.

Blog promotion afficionado Jeff Ferland provided some extra detail in his answer. Specifically, Jeff addressed which cipher setup should be used for actually encrypting the data, noting that the best setup for most real world scenarios is the combined use of asymmetric and symmetric cryptography as occurs in PGP, for example, where a transfer key encrypts the data using symmetric encryption and that key, a much smaller piece of data, can be effectively be protected by asymmetric encryption; this is often called “hybrid encryption”. The reason asymmetric encryption is not used throughout, aside from speed, is the padding requirement as Jeff himself and this question over on Crypto.SE discusses.

So in conclusion, it is definitely possible to have a key that works only for encryption and not for decryption; it requires mathematical structure, and faith in the difficulty of inverting some of these operations. However, using asymmetric encryption correctly and effectively is one of the biggest challenges in the security field; beyond the maths, private key storage, public key distribution, and key usage without leaking confidential information through careless implementation are very difficult to get right.

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