The lowdown on technology that uses a known key

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What is encryption? A technology that uses a known key'a number, password or digital file'and a mathematical algorithm to conceal the actual content of a file, storage device, or network packet. Encryption comes in two basic forms: symmetric encryption, which uses a single key known to everyone who needs access to the data; and asymmetric encryption, which uses a pair of keys to encrypt data.

What standards use symmetric encryption? Advanced Encryption Standard, Data Encryption Standard and Triple DES are examples of symmetric encryption. They are commonly used for encrypting data passing over networks from one point to another, such as office-to-office virtual private networks, and to encrypt data on storage devices to prevent unauthorized access to data.

What uses asymmetric encryption? Asymmetric encryption is usually used for sending secured data from one individual to another, such as in an e-mail message, or as a means for identifying an individual or server, as in digital certificates and digital signatures.

What is a public-key infrastructure? A system that uses digital certificates'which contain public and private encryption keys'either in software or hardware form, to identify and authenticate an individual to other individuals, software systems, portals and a network. A certificate authority issues digital certificates to individuals and vouches for their identity to other users.

The Defense Department issues PKI digital certificates through smart-card technology.

Must-know info? Encryption is increasingly tied to network infrastructure and computer applications; look for PKI systems to be integrated in the authentication systems of major operating systems. PKI also will be increasingly linked to biometrics to further secure data.

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