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The keys to public-key/private-key

Terms like SSL and encryption might make you want to reach for the remote.
But don’t be too quick to switch channels. SSL is making it safer to do business
online and boosting the trust of potential customers. And anything that
makes shoppers more likely to spend money online is something you need to know about.

The term encryption refers to the process of encoding data, especially sensitive
data, such as credit card numbers. Information is encrypted by means of complex
mathematical formulas called algorithms. Such a formula may transform
a simple-looking bit of information into a huge block of seemingly incomprehensible
numbers, letters, and characters. Only someone who has the right
formula, called a key, which is itself a complex mass of encoded data, can
decode the gobbledygook.
Here’s a very simple example. Suppose that my credit card number is 12345
and I encode it by using an encryption formula into something like the following:
The algorithm that generated this encrypted information may say something
like: “Take the first number, multiply it by some numeral, and then add some
letters to it. Then take the second number, divide it by x, and add y characters
to the result,” and so on. (In reality, the formulas are far more complex than
this, which is why you usually have to pay a license fee to use them. But this
is the general idea.) Someone who has the same formula can run it in reverse,
so to speak, in order to decrypt the encoded number and obtain the original
number, 12345.
In practice, the encoded numbers that are generated by encryption routines
and transmitted on the Internet are very large. They vary in size depending
on the relative strength (or uncrackability) of the security method being
used. Some methods generate keys that consist of 128 bits of data; a data bit
is a single unit of digital information. These formulas are called 128-bit keys.
Encryption is the cornerstone of security on the Internet. The most widely
used security schemes, such as the Secure Sockets Layer protocol (SSL), the
Secure Electronic Transactions protocol (SET), and Pretty Good Privacy (PGP),
all use some form of encryption.
With some security methods, the party that sends the data and the party that
receives it both use the same key (this method is called symmetrical encryption).
This approach isn’t considered as secure as an asymmetrical encryption
method, such as public-key encryption, however. In public-key encryption, the
originating party obtains a license to use a security method. (In the following
section, I show you just how to do this yourself.) As part of the license, you use
the encryption algorithm to generate your own private key. You never share
this key with anyone. However, you use the private key to create a separate
public key. This public key goes out to visitors who connect to a secure area
of your Web site. As soon as they have your public key, users can encode sensitive
information and send it back to you. Only you can decode the data —by using your secret, private key.

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