Cryptography - Key

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1 - About

A key is a parameter used in a cipher algorithm that determines the encryption operation (forward) and the decryption operation (backward).

Cryptographic keys are meant to be randomly generated by an algorithm whereas a password are meant to be created by human beings. See password

It's the only secret parameter that protect the anonymity of the transformation of plaintext into ciphertext (encryption) , and vice versa (decryption).

In designing security systems, it is wise to assume that the details of the cryptographic algorithm are already available to the attacker. This is known as:

The widely used algorithm are well known. It's easier to replace a key.

An attacker who obtains the key can :


3 - Usage

3.1 - Authentication

Key are used as authentication credential for automated processes

See Cryptography - Public Key Authentication

3.2 - Data Integrity

3.3 - Signature

Keys may also be used to sign digitally a document. Logically, this is the process underlying authentication because the signature authenticates the sender of the document. See digital signature schemes.

3.4 - Key exchange

Keys need to be distributed and their is a more secure scheme than to send a letter via postmail. See Cryptography - Key Exchange Algorithm

4 - Management

4.1 - Creation

4.1.1 - Password

Passwords were created to be memorized by human beings (low-entropy) where a key were created to be use in automated process by computer. They are too complex and random to be memorized.

Passwords are text whereas cryptographic keys are binary data (even if serialized and deserialized as text) and are generally not meant to input manually.

In a multi-factor authentication context,

  • passwords are something you know
  • cryptographic keys are something you have.

Cipher are not using passwords, they uses keys. Passwords should be then converted into key material with a password-stretching KDF with appropriate work factors.


4.1.2 - Keypair

4.2 - Owner

To be able to tell a key's owner, public keys are often enriched with attributes such as:

  • names,
  • addresses,
  • and similar identifiers.

The packed collection of a public key and its attributes can be digitally signed by one or more supporters.

The resulting object is called:

  • in the PKI model, a certificate and is signed by a certificate authority (CA).
  • In the PGP model, it is still called a “key”, and is signed by various people who personally verified that the attributes match the subject.

4.3 - Size


Selecting the Size of the Key, select the Strength of the crypto.

  • For RSA, 2048 bits should currently be sufficient for most purposes.
  • For ECDSA, only 256, 384, and 521 bits are supported. (ECDSA offers equivalent security to RSA with smaller key sizes.)
  • For Ed25519, the only valid size is 256 bits.

5 - Glossary

5.1 - Private

5.2 - Identity

The private keys in a PKI mode that are used for user authentication are called identity keys.


5.3 - Authorized

Once an SSH server receives a public key from a user and considers the key trustworthy, the server marks the key as authorized in its authorized_keys file. Such keys are called authorized keys. See authorized_keys

6 - Type

The type of key is generally the name of the cipher

7 - Protocol

Using a public key cryptography:

8 - Documentation / Reference

security/key/key.txt · Last modified: 2019/04/01 20:26 by gerardnico