Symmetric vs Asymmetric Encryption Difference Explained

symmetric encryption vs asymmetric encryption

In this article, you will learn about the difference between Symmetric Encryption vs Asymmetric Encryption, how they work, and what are their benefits!

In today’s digital world, data is considered one of the most vital possessions. Unfortunately, where advanced technology has brought luxury to our way of living, it also poses threats that can lead to dreadful incidents. Cyber attacks and cybercrimes have become highly prevalent in modern digital scenarios.

Therefore, to protect our crucial data from fraudulent activities, encryption is one of the major keys. When using the word encryption, you must have often heard people talk about symmetric and asymmetric encryption. Well, both of them are encryption techniques but with very different methodologies.

So in this blog, we will glance at symmetric encryption vs asymmetric encryption and how they are different from one another.

Symmetric vs. Asymmetric Encryption

To find the actual difference between symmetric and asymmetric encryption, the first step is to understand both encryption methods.

Let us begin with it.

1. Symmetric Encryption

It is one of the oldest and still relevant encryption techniques. This encryption method uses a secret key to encrypt and decrypt the data, making the process faster and easier.

The symmetric encryption method aims to secure secret, sensitive, or vital information while in transit or at rest. This encryption technique is widely used in the fields of defence, aerospace, banking, healthcare, IT, and several other industries.

How does Symmetric Encryption Works?

This technique of encryption either uses a stream cipher or block cipher for the encryption and decryption of data. A stream cipher converts plain text into ciphertext using one byte of data at a time. Whereas block data converts the entire unit of plaintext leveraging a predetermined key length of 128, 192, or 256 bits encryption strength.

The symmetric encryption process starts by encrypting the plain text into cipher text using a secret key. The data is transferred to its destination once it is encrypted. Then the sender shares its secret key with the recipient, where they decrypt the data back to its original plain text form using a similar secret key.

Symmetric Encryption Examples

The symmetric encryption technique is used worldwide for data security and transportation. Here are a few popular processes that use this technique:

  • Advanced Encryption Standard (AES)

AES is one of the most common encryption standards mostly used in internet networks. It uses block ciphers of 128, 192, or 256 bits to encrypt and decrypt the data. The encryption procedure of AES is so complex that it is nearly impossible to crack this technique. 

  • Data Encryption Standard (DES)

DES, or now the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is one of the oldest encryption algorithms. The algorithm breaks down the data to create 64-bit blocks. However, considering the current technology, it is easier to break this encryption method and hence is used by only a few private networks.

  • Transport Layer Security (TLS)

You might have heard the term TLS/SSL many times in your browser. It is a network protocol used to build a secure connection with the server-side. When a user accesses a server, symmetric keys are generated to encrypt and decrypt the data. So that it can be securely shared between the client and the server in that particular session.

  • International Data Encryption Algorithm (IDEA)

IDEA is an open and free block-cipher algorithm which was first introduced in the 90’s as a replacement to DES. However, as AES came into existence and turned out to be more efficient, IDEA did not succeed much and remained useful only for research and unofficial purposes.

Benefits of Symmetric Cryptography

Here are some advantages of using symmetric encryption:

  • Swift Processing

The symmetric encryption technique uses shorter key lengths as compared to asymmetric encryption, so they are much faster to execute.

  • Higher Security

Symmetric encryption algorithms such as AES are highly secure and nearly impossible to crack.

  • Ability to Process Large Files

One of the significant benefits of symmetric encryption is that it can work with large-size files more easily and faster.

Disadvantages of Symmetric Encryption

Here are a few demerits of symmetric encryption:

  • No Secure Method for Key Distribution

The keys used in the process have to be transmitted over an insecure channel that compromises the security of this method.

  • No Digital Signatures

Digital signatures ensure that the message comes from a secure source. Unfortunately, symmetric encryption does not have any method for enabling digital signatures.

2. Asymmetric Encryption

Contrary to symmetric encryption, asymmetric encryption is a process in which the data is encrypted using one key and decrypted using another. So the process involves the usage of two keys.

It is also known as public-key cryptography. This form of encryption is more secure than symmetric encryption. However, you need to remember two sets of keys for the right implementation of this technique.

How does Asymmetric Encryption Works?

This encryption technique is considered more complex in regard to the symmetric encryption as it requires two sets of keys for the entire process. In this technique, both private key and public key are required.

The sender converts the plain text into cipher text using public key cryptography. After the data reaches its destination, the receiver decrypts the same data file using his private keys. The data is brought back to its original plain text form without theft of any information.

Asymmetric Encryption Examples

Following are some of the examples of this encryption technique:

  • Rivest Shamir Adleman (RSA)

RSA is one of the most prominent examples of this encryption technique. It uses a public key for the encryption part, which is generated by multiplying two large-sized, random prime numbers together. The private key needed for decrypting the data is also generated from the same prime numbers.

  • Digital Signature Standard (DSS)

DSS, which usually combines with Digital Signature Algorithm (DSA), is mostly used for digital signatures. The sender uses their private key to sign a message digitally, and the receiver uses the sender’s corresponding public key to acknowledge that signature and receive the encrypted file.

  • Elliptical Curve Cryptography (ECC)

Elliptic Curve Cryptography (ECC) is an alternative to RSA that uses a small size of key mathematical elliptic curves for the process of data encryption. This algorithm technique is hugely popular because of its use in cryptocurrency. In general, ECC is much faster than RSA.

  • The Diffie-Hellman Exchange Method

This method is extremely vital in the history of encryption. It is a key exchange method where the two parties can share their keys with each other without physical interaction. Prior to this method, the sender and the receiver had to meet to exchange the keys with one another physically.

Benefits of Asymmetric Cryptography

Some of the key benefits of this encryption technique are:

  • No Need for Key Distribution

One of the most vital benefits of this technique is that it eliminates the key distribution process. The public and private keys need not be sent through public-key servers that usually pose a higher threat.

  • Digital Signature

Asymmetric encryption introduced digital signatures to the world. It allows users to digitally sign the message with their private key and verify the authentication of the generated file.

  • Higher Security than Symmetric Encryption

This method of encryption is more complex due to the use of two keys, making it safer. It uses one key for the encryption and the other for the decryption of files.

Disadvantages of Asymmetric Encryption

The Asymmetric encryption method too has some disadvantages such as:

  • Low Processing Speed

As the process is complicated and uses large-sized keys, it takes more time to process the files with this method.

  • No Data Recovery on Loss of Key

A big challenge that threatens the use of this encryption technique is that if a user loses their private key, there is no other way to decrypt the message.

Symmetric vs Asymmetric Encryption: The Difference

Both these techniques are leveraged and useful in the encryption processes in multiple applications. Let us differentiate between them using a table:

BasisSymmetric Key EncryptionAsymmetric Key Encryption
Usage of KeysOnly one symmetric key is used for the encryption and decryption.Two different public and private keys are used for encryption and decryption. 
Length of KeysBased on the security requirement, the key size can range between 128 to 256 bits.This encryption technique uses large-sized keys. The recommended key size for RSA is 2048 bits or higher.
Speed of ExecutionAs the process requires only a single key for both its operation, it is much faster than asymmetric encryption.Due to complex mathematical processing, this technique usually takes more execution time.
PurposeIt is mostly used to transmit or transfer large chunks of data.It is mostly used for smaller transactions. Basically, it is first used to establish a secure connection and then transfer files over it.
SecurityIt is less secure than asymmetric encryption as the secret key is shared in it. It is safer than symmetric encryption as there is no need for key distribution. 
AlgorithmsThe algorithms used in symmetric encryption are AES, DES, 3DES, and IDEA, TLS/SSL.The algorithms used in asymmetric encryption are RSA, DSA, ECC, Diffie-Hellman, and TLS/SSL

Symmetric vs Asymmetric Encryption: Which One Is Better?

People generally debate that one method is better than the other, depending upon their preference. However, now that you know the difference between symmetric and asymmetric cryptography, you will know each method has its place. If one is securer, then the other is faster and vice versa. So it is better to leverage them according to your application needs and enjoy their work of encryption.

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