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Cryptography facts for kids

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Early 20th century cipher wheel

Cryptography, or cryptology, is the practice and study of hiding information. It is sometimes called code, but this is not really a correct name. It is the science used to try to keep information secret and safe. Modern cryptography is a mix of mathematics, computer science, and electrical engineering. Cryptography is used in ATM (bank) cards, computer passwords, and shopping on the internet.

When a message is sent using cryptography, it is changed (or encrypted) before it is sent. The method of changing text is called a "code" or, more precisely, a "cipher". The changed text is called "ciphertext". The change makes the message hard to read. Someone who wants to read it must change it back (or decrypt it). How to change it back is a secret. Both the person that sends the message and the one that gets it should know the secret way to change it, but other people should not be able to. Studying the cyphertext to discover the secret is called "cryptanalysis" or "cracking" or sometimes "code breaking".

Different types of cryptography can be easier or harder to use and can hide the secret message better or worse. Ciphers use a "key" which is a secret that hides the secret messages. The cryptographic method needn't be secret. Various people can use the same method but different keys, so they cannot read each other's messages. Since the Caesar cipher has only as many keys as the number of letters in the alphabet, it is easily cracked by trying all the keys. Ciphers that allow billions of keys are cracked by more complex methods.

During the 20th century computers became the principle tool of cryptography.


Before the modern era, cryptography focused on message confidentiality (i.e., encryption)—conversion of messages from a comprehensible form into an incomprehensible one and back again at the other end, rendering it unreadable by interceptors or eavesdroppers without secret knowledge (namely the key needed for decryption of that message). Encryption attempted to ensure secrecy in communications, such as those of spies, military leaders, and diplomats. In recent decades, the field has expanded beyond confidentiality concerns to include techniques for message integrity checking, sender/receiver identity authentication, digital signatures, interactive proofs and secure computation, among others.

Classic cryptography

Reconstructed ancient Greek scytale, an early cipher device

The main classical cipher types are transposition ciphers, which rearrange the order of letters in a message (e.g., 'hello world' becomes 'ehlol owrdl' in a trivially simple rearrangement scheme), and substitution ciphers, which systematically replace letters or groups of letters with other letters or groups of letters (e.g., 'fly at once' becomes 'gmz bu podf' by replacing each letter with the one following it in the Latin alphabet). Simple versions of either have never offered much confidentiality from enterprising opponents. An early substitution cipher was the Caesar cipher, in which each letter in the plaintext was replaced by a letter some fixed number of positions further down the alphabet. Suetonius reports that Julius Caesar used it with a shift of three to communicate with his generals. Atbash is an example of an early Hebrew cipher. The earliest known use of cryptography is some carved ciphertext on stone in Egypt (c. 1900 BCE), but this may have been done for the amusement of literate observers rather than as a way of concealing information.

The Greeks of Classical times are said to have known of ciphers (e.g., the scytale transposition cipher claimed to have been used by the Spartan military). Steganography (i.e., hiding even the existence of a message so as to keep it confidential) was also first developed in ancient times. An early example, from Herodotus, was a message tattooed on a slave's shaved head and concealed under the regrown hair. More modern examples of steganography include the use of invisible ink, microdots, and digital watermarks to conceal information.

In Sassanid Persia, there were two secret scripts, according to the Muslim author Ibn al-Nadim: the šāh-dabīrīya (literally "King's script") which was used for official correspondence, and the rāz-saharīya which was used to communicate secret messages with other countries.

David Kahn notes in The Codebreakers that modern cryptology originated among the Arabs, the first people to systematically document cryptanalytic methods. Al-Khalil (717–786) wrote the Book of Cryptographic Messages, which contains the first use of permutations and combinations to list all possible Arabic words with and without vowels.

Al-kindi cryptographic
First page of a book by Al-Kindi which discusses encryption of messages

Ciphertexts produced by a classical cipher (and some modern ciphers) will reveal statistical information about the plaintext, and that information can often be used to break the cipher. After the discovery of frequency analysis, perhaps by the Arab mathematician and polymath Al-Kindi (also known as Alkindus) in the 9th century, nearly all such ciphers could be broken by an informed attacker. Such classical ciphers still enjoy popularity today, though mostly as puzzles (see cryptogram).

16th century French cypher machine in the shape of a book with arms of Henri II
16th-century book-shaped French cipher machine, with arms of Henri II of France
Encoded letter of Gabriel Luetz d Aramon after 1546 with partial deciphering
Enciphered letter from Gabriel de Luetz d'Aramon, French Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, after 1546, with partial decipherment

Different physical devices and aids have been used to assist with ciphers. One of the earliest may have been the scytale of ancient Greece, a rod supposedly used by the Spartans as an aid for a transposition cipher. In medieval times, other aids were invented such as the cipher grille, which was also used for a kind of steganography. With the invention of polyalphabetic ciphers came more sophisticated aids such as Alberti's own cipher disk, Johannes Trithemius' tabula recta scheme, and Thomas Jefferson's wheel cypher (not publicly known, and reinvented independently by Bazeries around 1900). Many mechanical encryption/decryption devices were invented early in the 20th century, and several patented, among them rotor machines—famously including the Enigma machine used by the German government and military from the late 1920s and during World War II. The ciphers implemented by better quality examples of these machine designs brought about a substantial increase in cryptanalytic difficulty after WWI.

Early computer-era cryptography

In the United Kingdom, cryptanalytic efforts at Bletchley Park during WWII spurred the development of more efficient means for carrying out repetitive tasks, such as military code breaking (decryption). This culminated in the development of the Colossus, the world's first fully electronic, digital, programmable computer, which assisted in the decryption of ciphers generated by the German Army's Lorenz SZ40/42 machine.

In the early 1970s IBM personnel designed the Data Encryption Standard (DES) algorithm that became the first federal government cryptography standard in the United States. In 1976 Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman published the Diffie–Hellman key exchange algorithm. In 1977 the RSA algorithm was published in Martin Gardner's Scientific American column. Since then, cryptography has become a widely used tool in communications, computer networks, and computer security generally.

Some modern cryptographic techniques can only keep their keys secret if certain mathematical problems are intractable. There are very few cryptosystems that are proven to be unconditionally secure.

Modern cryptography

Prior to the early 20th century, cryptography was mainly concerned with linguistic and lexicographic patterns. Since then cryptography has broadened in scope, and now makes extensive use of mathematical subdisciplines, including statistics, combinatorics, abstract algebra, number theory, and finite mathematics, among others.

Many computer ciphers can be characterized by their operation on binary bit sequences (sometimes in groups or blocks), unlike classical and mechanical schemes, which generally manipulate traditional characters (i.e., letters and digits) directly.


In a symmetric-key algorithm, both the sender and receiver share the key. The sender uses the key to hide the message. Then, the receiver will use the same key in the opposite way to reveal the message. For centuries, most cryptography has been symmetric. Advanced Encryption Standard is a widely used one. However this is not to be confused with symmetry.


Asymmetric cryptography is harder to use. Each person who wants to use asymmetric cryptography uses a secret number (a "private key") that is not shared, and a different number (a "public key") that they can tell everyone. If someone else wants to send this person a message, they'll use the number they've been told to hide the message. Now the message cannot be revealed, even by the sender, but the receiver can easily reveal the message with his secret or "private key". This way, nobody else needs to know the secret key.

Asymmetric cryptography generally takes more time and requires more computer power, therefore it is not used most of the time. Instead, it is often used for computer signatures, when a computer must know that some data (like a file or a website) was sent from a certain sender. For example, computer software companies that release updates for their software can sign those updates to prove that the update was made by them, so that hackers cannot make their own updates that would cause harm. Websites that use HTTPS use an popular algorithm named RSA to create certificates, that show they own the website and that it is secure. Computers can also use asymmetric ciphers to give each other the keys for symmetric ciphers.


Cryptography is widely used on the internet to help protect user-data and prevent eavesdropping. To ensure secrecy during transmission, many systems use private key cryptography to protect transmitted information. With public-key systems, one can maintain secrecy without a master key or a large number of keys.


Cryptography can be used to secure communications by encrypting them. Websites use encryption via HTTPS. "End-to-end" encryption, where only sender and receiver can read messages, is implemented for email in Pretty Good Privacy and for secure messaging in general in WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram.

Operating systems use encryption to keep passwords secret, conceal parts of the system, and ensure that software updates are truly from the system maker. Instead of storing plaintext passwords, computer systems store hashes thereof; then, when a user logs in, the system passes the given password through a cryptographic hash function and compares it to the hashed value on file. In this manner, neither the system nor an attacker has at any point access to the password in plaintext.

Encryption is sometimes used to encrypt one's entire drive. For example, University College London has implemented BitLocker (a program by Microsoft) to render drive data opaque without users logging in.

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Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Criptografía para niños

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