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Understanding Cryptography: What It Is and How It's Used

Written by: University of Tulsa   •  Jan 4, 2024
Why Is Understanding Cryptography Important Learn How an Advanced Education Can Help #cybersecurity Professionals Fight Cybercrime.

Understanding Cryptography: What It Is and How It’s Used

Cryptography has existed for thousands of years. For example, many experts believe ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics were created as a secret code that was known to only a few people. And when Julius Caesar grew wary of his messengers around 50 B.C., he developed a cipher, a system for encrypting and decrypting messages, that allowed him to communicate safely with his generals on the battlefield.

Today’s cryptography uses advanced technologies to protect sensitive information. Understanding cryptography allows cybersecurity professionals in all types of organizations to better secure their organization’s data. Earning an advanced degree can help cybersecurity specialists gain the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in the field.

What Is Cryptography?

Cryptography is a method used to protect data by converting it into unreadable formats, rendering it incomprehensible to humans without the appropriate keys. Modern cryptography relies on engineering concepts, software, cryptographic algorithms (also known as ciphers), and mathematical concepts to encrypt and decrypt data. It also uses cryptography techniques like digital signatures to verify a sender’s identity.

Understanding cryptography and practicing it using modern tools has four primary aims:

  • Confidentiality: Confidentiality is maintained when only individuals with proper authorization can access transmitted information, with the data remaining protected from unauthorized access throughout its entire life cycle.
  • Data Integrity: Data integrity refers to the accuracy, legitimacy, and consistency of information within a system. To have integrity, the information must come from a trusted source and must not have been tampered with.
  • Authentication: Authentication is a process in which software is used to verify a user’s identity before granting them access to the data in a system. When a user fails authentication, they can’t access the resources in the system.
  • Nonrepudiation: Nonrepudiation is a service enabled by technology that ensures the integrity and origin of data through third-party verification and validation.

Types of Cryptography

Understanding cryptography requires knowing about the different types, each of which serves different purposes. The three primary types of cryptography are symmetric key cryptography, asymmetric key cryptography, and hash functions.

Symmetric Key Cryptography

This type of cryptography entails using a single key. Both the sender and receiver of a transmission use the same key to encrypt and decrypt the data. Two types of symmetric key cryptography are stream cipher algorithms, which encrypt text one bit at a time, and block cipher algorithms, which encrypt text a block at a time. Examples of block cipher algorithms include the Data Encryption Standard (DES) and the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES).

Asymmetric Key Cryptography

Like symmetric key cryptography, keys play an important role in asymmetric key cryptography. The primary difference between the two is that symmetric key cryptography uses a single key while asymmetric key cryptography uses a pair of keys. One key, the public key, encrypts the data, while the other key, the private key, decrypts the data. RSA and elliptic curve cryptography (ECC) are examples of asymmetric key cryptography algorithms. Digital signatures also use asymmetric key cryptography pairs to authenticate data.

Hash Functions

A hash function is a one-way method that changes data into a hash value. Hash functions are typically used for password storage. However, instead of storing actual passwords, hash functions in applications store the hash values of passwords to reduce the likelihood that a hacker will retrieve users’ actual passwords.

Understanding Cryptography and How It’s Used

Cryptography plays a crucial role in safeguarding sensitive information, making it indispensable for ensuring the security of communication channels such as email, online portals, and web and mobile phone applications. By employing cryptographic techniques, data security applications help to protect various everyday transactions, ranging from file sharing within business networks to online apps used for banking or shopping.

The scope of cryptography extends to multiple domains:

  • Military and Defense: This sector uses military-grade encryption to safeguard classified information from interpretation by adversaries, ensuring the integrity and confidentiality of sensitive data.
  • Health Care: Maintaining patient medical records securely is of utmost importance to protect individuals’ privacy. Cryptography ensures that medical information remains confidential and inaccessible to unauthorized individuals.
  • Entertainment: Cryptography plays a significant role in digital rights management, preventing the unauthorized copying and distribution of movies and music. This helps protect intellectual property rights and combat piracy.
  • Supply Chain: Cryptography techniques enable vendors and buyers to verify the authenticity of products. By employing cryptographic measures, the integrity of the supply chain can be maintained, ensuring that products are genuine and free from tampering.
  • Government Communications: Encryption technology is utilized to safeguard agency-to-agency communications and citizen portals, helping to ensure the nation’s security and protecting the privacy of citizens. By employing strong encryption algorithms, government agencies help keep sensitive government information confidential and protected from unauthorized access.

While cryptography is effective, cybercriminals continuously evolve their tactics to find new ways to break into systems with sensitive data. Cybersecurity professionals must utilize advanced encryption technologies to stay ahead of potential threats.

Understanding cryptography and its applications can help cyber threat analysts and other cybersecurity professionals make it increasingly challenging for criminals to decipher encrypted information. Of course, while cryptography plays a significant role in cybersecurity, no data system is impervious to criminal breaches. However, when it is combined with other security protocols such as secure sockets layer and transport layer security (SSL/TLS), cybersecurity professionals can establish a strong defense against hackers, maintaining the integrity of their organization’s data and preventing unauthorized access to its sensitive information.

Learn How to Fight Cybercrime With Cryptography

Cybercriminals are upping the ante in their efforts to attack systems — from 57% of attacks using encrypted channels in 2020 to 85% in 2022, according to Zscaler. Cybersecurity professionals need to employ complex modern encryption techniques to counter the increasingly sophisticated strategies employed by cybercriminals. This makes understanding cryptography an essential aspect of modern cybersecurity.

Corporations and other organizations are increasingly seeking skilled and knowledgeable professionals who can safeguard their valuable data. Pursuing a master’s in cybersecurity program with system security and cryptography as a core element in its curriculum can open up a world of career opportunities. Explore how the online Master of Science in Cyber Security program at The University of Tulsa can help equip you with the skills and knowledge you need to meet any cybersecurity demand.

Recommended Readings

The Importance of Cybersecurity Leadership

Cybersecurity Ethics: Why It’s Important

Chief Information Security Officer: Job Description and Salary


Amazon Web Services, “What Is Cryptography?”

Entrust, “Who Should We Thank for Modern Cryptography? The Egyptian Monks.”

EPSNews, “Utilizing Cryptography in Supply Chain and Procurement”

Fortinet, “What Is Cryptography?”

Fortra, “How DRM Encryption Protects Video Content”

Kiteworks, “7 Industry Sectors That Need Data Encryption”

National Institute of Standards and Technology, Authentication

National Institute of Standards and Technology, Non-repudiation

PassCamp, “What Is Military-Grade Encryption?”

PassCamp, “What Is Password Hashing: A Comprehensive Guide”

RSI Security, “What Is Cryptography in Cyber Security: Types, Examples and More”

TechTarget, Cryptography

UpGuard, “What Is Cryptography? And How You Can Secure Your Data”

Zscaler, “Spoiler: New ThreatLabz Report Reveals Over 85% of Attacks Are Encrypted”

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