Nine Algorithms That Changed the Future: The Ingenious Ideas That Drive Today's Computers

By John Maccormick | Go to book overview

4
Public Key Cryptography: Sending Secrets on a
Postcard

Who knows those most secret things of me that are hidden from
the world?

—BOB DYLAN, Covenant Woman

Humans love to gossip, and they love secrets. And since the goal of cryptography is to communicate secrets, we are all natural cryptographers. But humans can communicate secretly more easily than computers. If you want to tell a secret to your friend, you can just whisper in your friend’s ear. It’s not so easy for computers to do that. There’s no way for one computer to “whisper” a credit card number to another computer. If the computers are connected by the internet, they have no control over where that credit card number goes, and which other computers get to find it out. In this chapter we’ll find out how computers get around this problem, using one of the most ingenious and influential computer science ideas of all time: public key cryptography.

At this point, you may be wondering why the title of this chapter refers to “sending secrets on a postcard.” The figure on the facing page reveals the answer: communicating via postcards can be used as an analogy to demonstrate the power of public key cryptography. In real life, if you wanted to send a confidential document to someone, you would, of course, enclose the document in a securely sealed envelope before sending it. This doesn’t guarantee confidentiality, but it is a sensible step in the right direction. If, on the other hand, you chose to write your confidential message on the back of a postcard before sending it, confidentiality is obviously violated: anyone who comes in contact with the postcard (postal workers, for example) can just look at the postcard and read the message.

This is precisely the problem that computers face when trying to communicate confidentially with each other on the internet. Because

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