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Cryptography or Encryption – Is there a Difference?

written by: Sheila Robinson•edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 6/29/2010

When you think about cryptography or encryption, you may wonder if they are the same thing. Find out the difference between these two terms and how they are used in relation to the secure transmission of messages and other information.

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    What is it - Cryptography or Encryption?

    Cryptography or encryption? 

    Cryptography is defined as the study and practice of hiding information. It concerns the methods and techniques used to prevent unwanted disclosure of the content of messages. Alternatively, encryption is the actual process of transforming information (or plaintext) into an illegible format called a cipher or ciphertext. It is used to provide security in the transmission of secure data and information. Modern day encryption uses different types of algorithms to achieve results that vary in complexity.

    The use of the cryptography or encryption terms is used interchangeably. In the past, cryptography was only concerned with linguistic and lexicographic patterns (cryptolinguistics) as well as message confidentiality. Since encryption is tied in with methods that provide this kind of security, people can sometimes get these two terms confused. Today, cryptography studies are a combination of mathematics, computer science and engineering.

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    Types of Cryptography

    One type of cryptography is called symmetric cryptography. It is a method where the receiver and sender of an encrypted message both have the same key to decipher it. The Data Encryption Standard (DEA), International Data Encryption Standard (IDEA), Advanced Encryption, and Standard (AES) are methods that have been used by the U.S. government which utilize this type of cryptography.

    Asymmetric cryptography (or public key cryptography) is another type of cryptography. This method uses a public and private key that are generated during the encryption process. The public key may be distributed freely and is used for encrypting data. The private key is given to the intended recipient of the encrypted data, who can then decrypt the data securely. Asymmetric cryptography is used in digital signature standards (DSS), password authenticated key agreement techniques, and with the Secure Socket Layer (SSL) protocol.

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    Encryption Techniques

    Encryption techniques use algorithms that result in different types of ciphers. Stream ciphers work by encrypting single bits or bytes of information one a time. The technique uses symmetric cryptography methods in its process.

    Block ciphers is an encryption technique that breaks down and encrypts data into individual blocks. This is typically sized at 64 bits. The Data Encryption Standard (DEA) and Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) have used block ciphers designs in their applications.

    Using hash algorithms is another encryption technique. It uses mathematical algorithmic computations to convert large amounts of data into smaller, compressed size. This technique is used in “one way encryption" where data is not decrypted for viewing. Examples of this are passwords and digital signatures.

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    Final Thoughts on Cryptography and Encryption

    Defining the difference between cryptography or encryption terms does not have to be confusing. Remember that cryptography is the study and methods used for the security of messages and other important information, while encryption is the specific techniques that make these methods possible.

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    Image Credit

    Image used in the “Cryptography or Encryption – Is there a Difference?" article was by http://www.sxc.hu/profile/erkinsahin Erkin Sahin