Monday, June 27, 2016

Keys to the Future - Encryption Keys

Greetings!  Today's key is perhaps one of the most high-tech ones we have in our collection, and fully understanding it has been quite a challenge for me, so I'll be simplifying this significantly from all of the more specific technical terms.  I'm certainly no expert in the field of cyber security, but I'll do my best to make sure this makes sense.

This "key" that I'm talking about comes printed on a piece of paper in a frame.  Labeled as a "1024 bit Public Encryption Key", it contains several lines of randomized letters and numbers.  While we don't have a tag for it, the paper has at the bottom an author listed as Craig Robinson, who generated the key on June 10th, 2008, though it was a 2010 donation.

Of course, such an unusual key requires some explanation.  Why would we print a key on a piece of paper like this?  Well, there's actually no need for the physically printed key to exist.  The purpose of it is to be a digital key.  It's used in both sending and receiving information over the internet.  A simple similarity would be sending emails.  In order to send an email, you first have to use a password to log into your email.  Likewise, the person you send your email to has to use their password to log in and receive the sent email.  Encryption keys are fairly similar, on a more complex process.

This is all essentially based on pre-internet forms of encryption.  Think about espionage.  Spies that have to exchange information with each other without anyone else knowing about it may write a letter in code.  They would both have a key so that the sender could properly write it in code and the recipient could properly decode the message.  The same principle applies to internet security.  The message (such as the theoretical email you sent earlier) would be encoded so no one else would be able to read it.  This level of encryption keeps other people out.  While you may or may not care about people snooping in your email, encryption is much more appreciated in internet purchases, where the encryption keeps details about your credit card safe from people who would want to steal your card information.

An example of asymmetrical cryptography

Now, we need to establish the difference between a public key, like this one, and a private key.  This is part of a process known as "asymmetric cryptography".  The reason that it's asymmetric is because of the existence of the two keys.  The public key is only used to encrypt the information.  The access to that is much more extensive.  As shown in the diagram above, the public key would be used by the other party.  Your key, in this situation, would be the private key, which is the only way to decrypt the information.  The security depends on your private key remaining private.  The asymmetric system is frequently used in SSL security, also known as TLS, and keeps everything properly locked.  In fact, if you're using Chrome right now, you can click the lock button on the web address and view the "details" portion to see that your connection is secure via one of these asymmetric keys.

With that in mind, the definition of a 1024-bit key can be given.  Essentially, the 1024 bits refers to how long the key is.  Generally, the more bits in a key, the more secure it is.  Back when this key was written in 2008, 1024 bits was the standard for encryption keys.  Now, 8 years later, the new standard is 2048 bits, with options for 4096.  These longer keys are significantly harder to hack into, making them more secure than the old 1024 bit keys.

At this point, hopefully you understand more about internet security and the "keys" that go with them.  I've certainly learned quite a bit from researching this key.  Thank you (presumably) to Mr. Robinson for this key, and, as always, you can see this (and many others) when you visit the Key Room!