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Symmetric encryption is algorithms for cryptography that use the same cryptographic keys for both the encryption of plaintext and the decryption of ciphertext. The keys may be identical, or there may be 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. The requirement that both parties have access to the secret key is one of the main drawbacks of symmetric-key encryption, in comparison to public-key encryption (also known as asymmetric encryption). However, symmetric-key encryption algorithms are usually better for bulk encryption. With exception of the one-time pad they have a smaller key size, which means less storage space and faster transmission. Due to this, asymmetric-key encryption is often used to exchange the secret key for symmetric-key encryption.
- Stream ciphers encrypt the digits (typically bytes), or letters (in substitution ciphers) of a message one at a time. An example is ChaCha20.
- Block ciphers take a number of bits and encrypt them in a single unit, padding the plaintext to achieve a multiple of the block size. The Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) algorithm, approved by NIST in December 2001, uses 128-bit blocks.
Popular symmetric encryption algorithms
Symmetric ciphers have historically been susceptible to known-plaintext attacks, chosen-plaintext attacks, differential cryptanalysis and linear cryptanalysis. Careful construction of the functions for each round can greatly reduce the chances of a successful attack. It is also possible to increase the key length or the rounds in the encryption process to better protect against attack. This, however, tends to increase the processing power and decrease the speed at which the process runs due to the amount of operations the system needs to do.
Most modern symmetric-key algorithms appear to be resistant to the threat of post-quantum cryptography. Quantum computers would exponentially increase the speed at which these ciphers can be decoded; notably, Grover’s algorithm would take the square-root of the time traditionally required for a brute-force attack, although these vulnerabilities can be compensated for by doubling key length. For example, a 128 bit AES cipher would not be secure against such an attack as it would reduce the time required to test all possible iterations from over 10 quintillion years to about six months. By contrast, it would still take a quantum computer the same amount of time to decode a 256 bit AES cipher as it would a conventional computer to decode a 128 bit AES cipher.For this reason, AES-256 is believed to be “quantum resistant”.