Symmetric-key algorithm

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Symmetric-key algorithms are a class of algorithms for cryptography that use trivially related, often identical, cryptographic keys for both decryption and encryption etc.

The encryption key is trivially related to the decryption key, in that they may be identical or there is a simple transformation to go between the two keys. The keys, in practice, represent a shared secret between two or more parties that can be used to maintain a private information link.

Other terms for symmetric-key encryption are secret-key, single-key, shared-key, one-key, and private-key encryption. Use of the last and first terms can create ambiguity with similar terminology used in public-key cryptography.


Types of symmetric-key algorithms

Symmetric-key algorithms can be divided into stream ciphers and block ciphers. Stream ciphers encrypt the bits of the message one at a time, and block ciphers take a number of bits and encrypt them as a single unit. Blocks of 64 bits have been commonly used. The Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) algorithm approved by NIST in December 2001 uses 128-bit blocks.

Some examples of popular and well-respected symmetric algorithms include Twofish, Serpent, AES (Rijndael), Blowfish, CAST5, RC4, 3DES, and IDEA.

Cryptographic primitives based on symmetric ciphers

Symmetric ciphers are often used to achieve other cryptographic primitives than just encryption.

Encrypting a message does not guarantee that this message is not changed while encrypted. Hence often a message authentication code is added to a ciphertext to ensure that changes to the ciphertext will be noted by the receiver. Message authentication codes can be constructed from symmetric ciphers (e.g. CBC-MAC).

However, symmetric ciphers also can be used for non-repudiation purposes by ISO 13888-2 standard.

Another application is to build hash functions from block ciphers. See one-way compression function for descriptions of several such methods.

Construction of symmetric ciphers

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