Protecting Against Eavesdroppers with Symmetric Cryptography
Encryption refers to the practice of scrambling a message such that it can only be read (descrambled) by the intended recipient. To make this possible, you must scramble the message in a reversible way, but in such a way that only somebody with a special piece of knowledge can descramble it correctly. This special piece of knowledge is referred to as the key, evoking an image of unlocking a locked drawer with its one and only key to remove the contents. Anybody who has the key can descramble — decrypt, in crypto-speak — the scrambled message. In theory, at least, no one without the key can decrypt the message.
When computers are used for cryptography, messages and keys are actually numbers. The message is converted to (or at least treated as) a number, which is numerically combined with the key (also a number) in a specified way according to a cryptographic algorithm. As such, an attacker without the key can try all keys, starting at "1" and incrementing over and over again, until the correct key is found. To determine when he's hit the right combination, the attacker has to know something about the message that was encrypted in the first place, obviously. However, this is usually the case. Consider the case of an HTTP exchange. The first four characters of the first request are likely to be "G E T." The hypothetical attacker can just do a decryption using a proposed key, check the first four letters, and if ...