Home > Articles > Security > Network Security

  • Print
  • + Share This
This chapter is from the book

Practical Applications

Now that we have looked at most of the basic cryptographic services and have an idea of how they work, let us ask this question: What good are they? What can they do for us? As we have been saying all along, despite the abstract nature, cryptography is quite useful and can do pretty mighty things.

Confidentiality. Encrypted information is virtually hidden from everyone who doesn't know how to decrypt it or doesn't have the appropriate key. This makes it possible to share secret information over insecure communication channels, such as the Internet, thus providing confidentiality even though the network itself is quite open. The same applies to data stored on disk. Encryption ensures confidentiality of stored data even if the computer itself gets compromised or stolen.

Integrity. There are times when you want to detect intentional tampering or unintentional corruption of data. This goal can be achieved by computing the digest value of the original and the current data. A mismatch would indicate some sort of change in the data. If the threat of intentional tampering exists for both the data and the digest value then MAC can be used as the detection mechanism.

Non-repudiation. A physical signature on paper, along with the visually observable state of the paper, proves the authenticity of the document and is legally binding. Public key cryptography-based digital signature performs the same role for electronic documents.

Although these are quite powerful capabilities, in reality, things are more complex. Passwords are prone to be easily guessed or to be captured by tricks or "stolen" by social engineering. The use of a private key by a computer program is not always same as the use by the stated owner of the key. A compromised computer can trick a human user into doing things that the user may never have done knowingly. Finally, the cryptography itself is not fully resistant to attacks. Someone with good skill, sufficient determination and ample computing power can defeat most cryptographic protection.

But before we proceed to dismiss cryptography as useless junk, let us think about the physical world. Every now and then, the best-kept secrets become "public" due to carelessness or malicious intent of the parties in the know. Cases of forged documents or signatures are not unheard of. Even the most wary are not immune from being duped by con artists. All this is possible and happens more frequently than we care to admit. Still, life goes on. There are safeguards, mostly in form of a legal and judicial system, to keep the occurrences of such instances low.

The cyber world is no different. In the absence of a better technology, we have to rely on cryptography and use it carefully.

However, cryptography by itself is quite inadequate for real life use. Exchange of encrypted files may work as means to share secret information in a small group of people that agree on the algorithm and a secret key or password beforehand, but is useless when the communicating parties may not know each other. Use of a digital signature as a means of proving authenticity requires that someone with appropriate authority should be able to substantiate the ownership claim of the private key. In cases where a private key is compromised, there has to be a way to invalidate the key and minimize the damage. Even transportation of keys requires defining a format so that software from different vendors can use them appropriately.

The solution to these and many other related problems lies in using agreed upon standards to store and communicate cryptographic information: conventions, policies and regulations for trust relationships and other related aspects of doing business. As we see in subsequent chapters, PKI standards, communication protocols like SSL and identification and authentication services define exactly such standards and conventions.

  • + Share This
  • 🔖 Save To Your Account