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What is a Cryptosystem?

By Britt Archer
Updated May 16, 2024
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A cryptosystem is an essential concept for keeping vital information safe on the Internet. Any time-sensitive personal information is passed through what is known as a secure server and the information is then encrypted, or put into code. The person receiving the information must have the proper system for decoding, or decrypting, the information. Information such as names, addresses, credit card numbers and social security numbers are often protected using at least one form of a cryptosystem. In this context, the word cryptosystem is used as an abbreviation for the terms cryptographic system.

Cryptosystems are generally considered to be the best choice to keep vital information safe on the Internet. Safety protocols such as SSL, TLS and SSH all rely on cryptosystems and cryptographic primitives to form the basis of their encoding. The safety of using cryptographic systems is not entirely foolproof, as there are variable factors including the user, the computer, the network on which the information is being stored and the server over which it is shared. Many people who use the Internet for personal use will recognize a secure server by a small lock-shaped icon at the bottom of their Internet browser window. This is a good indication that a cryptosystem is in use on that particular web page for the purpose of keeping information private.

Before the advent of computers and the Internet, the word cryptosystems was used in a different context. A cryptographer, or someone who works with secret codes to hide information, would create a set of three mathematical algorithms. One set would generate the information, another would encrypt it and the third would decrypt it. In essence, the information used in cryptography would be “scrambled” two times, and unscrambled once.

There are a myriad number of cryptographic techniques, but the most secure rely on the embellishment of what are known as cryptographic primitives. These low level algorithms are built upon and re-created to establish a code that can only be broken a certain number of ways. The lower the number of ways a cryptosystem can be solved, the more secure the cryptography is thought to be.

Because the term is used among computer security agents and cryptographers, a popular publication for Internet security professionals, The Internet Security Glossary, suggests that the term cryptosystem should not be used in conjunction with Internet security to avoid confusion. Rather than using that term, the Internet Security Glossary suggests that the terms cryptographic or cryptography be used. Despite the publication’s recommendation, many people continue to use the word cryptosystem to refer to both computerized and non-computerized codes.

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