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Practical UNIX and Internet Security, 3rd Edition by Alan Schwartz, Gene Spafford, Simson Garfinkel

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Symmetric Key Algorithms

Symmetric key algorithms are used primarily for the bulk encryption of data or data streams. These algorithms are designed to be very fast and have a large number of possible keys. The best symmetric key algorithms offer excellent secrecy; once data is encrypted with a given key, there is no fast way to decrypt the data without possessing the same key.

Symmetric key algorithms can be divided into two categories: block and stream. Block algorithms encrypt data a block (many bytes) at a time, while stream algorithms encrypt byte by byte (or even bit by bit).

Cryptographic Strength of Symmetric Algorithms

Different encryption algorithms are not equal. Some systems are not very good at protecting data, allowing encrypted information to be decrypted without knowledge of the requisite key. Others are quite resistant to even the most determined attack. The ability of a cryptographic system to protect information from attack is called its strength. Strength depends on many factors, including:

  • The secrecy of the key.

  • The difficulty of guessing the key or trying out all possible keys (a key search). Longer keys are generally more difficult to guess or find.

  • The difficulty of inverting the encryption algorithm without knowing the encryption key (breaking the encryption algorithm).

  • The existence (or lack) of back doors , or additional ways by which an encrypted file can be decrypted more easily without knowing the key.

  • The ability to decrypt an entire encrypted message ...

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