Encryption on the Internet has come a long, long way from the oft-ignored little yellow key in the lower left corner of your Netscape Navigator status bar. Today, cryptography is a vital part of all of our Internet lives, whether we realize it or not. Now, if you’re reading this article on Nerdland, chances are that you’re well aware of that, and I don’t need to explain why you need to be sure your online banking is done over an HTTPS connection, and why connecting your laptop to an open, unsecured wireless network is usually a bad idea.
But the little stuff can trip you up just as easily, and if you don’t have a solid understanding of the different facets of cryptography, you may well think that a system meets your security requirements when it does not. After all, modern cryptography is just mathematics. There’s no inherent application for it. Security isn’t a tangible property either; it’s an umbrella term for a whole class of goals. Rather, privacy, authentication, identification, trust, and verification — mechanisms of applied cryptography — are what provide the most commonly desired types of security. Understanding what these terms really mean, how they are implemented, and how they are different is essential to a true understanding of how encryption works to assure your security on the Internet, and even within a single computer.