RSA Encryption: Definition, Architecture, Benefits & Use
RSA allows you to secure messages before you send them. And the technique also lets you certify your notes, so recipients know they haven't been adjusted or altered while in transit.
The RSA algorithm is one of the most widely used encryption tools in use today. If you've used computers made by Samsung, Toshiba, and LG, you've probably used a device with an embedded RSA-enabled chip.
Some people use RSA explicitly, and they dig deep into the math before they send any kind of message via an insecure service (like email). But some use RSA unknowingly when they sign on to secured websites. Their computers do the work behind the scenes, and sometimes, that work happens without their permission too.
RSA was once considered the gold standard of encryption security. But some experts believe that it's become too easy to hack. Others say it's never implemented properly, and that inaccuracy is responsible for the hacking risks.
No matter how it's used or what you believe, it pays to know more about how RSA works, so you can be aware of the security risks you face.
What Is an RSA Algorithm?
Before the mid-1970s, exchanging secure messages required a lot of coordination. Senders and recipients needed to share a secret code (or key). Without it, encrypted notes couldn't be decrypted. RSA changed everything.
In 1977, three MIT colleagues began developing their own cryptographic system based on randomisation, basic math, and prime numbers. It took the trio 42 tries to find a formula they considered unbreakable, and they named it by combining the first letters of their last names.
Like other cryptographic algorithms, RSA transforms basic, readable data into something scrambled and twisted. Only a key can reverse the process. And RSA relies on a key made, in part, from prime numbers.
In theory, a hacker could compute the value of a private key by analysing the public version. But prime numbers are incredibly difficult to work with, especially if they're long.
For example, organisations have held "RSA Factoring Challenges" to encourage mathematicians to break the code. A winning team in 2020 needed 2,700 years of running computer cores to carry out their mathematical formulas. It took months for them to complete it via thousands of machines all around the world. And that was considered a speed record.
How Does RSA Encryption Work?
RSA encryption relies on few basic assets and quite a bit of math.
These elements are required:
- A public key (e)
- A private key (d)
- Two prime numbers (P and Q), multiplied (N)
Security relies on the assumption that it's impossible to determine the value of d. The math that sits behind these calculations is complex, but it would be familiar to any student of algebra.
If you're interested in seeing the math at work, use an online calculator to create your keys.
While breaking the code is difficult, it's not impossible. Some developers make theft harder by adding random elements. This so-called padding scheme makes the message larger, so it's harder to compute with math. And the random information makes decryption less accurate. A less sophisticated hacker might come up with decrypted text that’s nothing like the original note.
Where Are RSA Encryption Algorithms Used?
People hoping to send secure messages, gain access to secure websites, or prove the authenticity of messages might use RSA.
To send a message with RSA, you will:
- Create keys. You'll follow the mathematical steps above (or use a program) to create both a public and a private version. You'll store that private key in a spot where it can't be seen, but the public version should be widely shared.
- Get your recipient's public key. You must know this value to encrypt your note.
- Encrypt and send. Using the public key and an agreed-upon padding scheme, you'll scramble your note and send it along.
- Use recipient decoding. When the message arrives, the person will use a private key to undo the work and see what's inside.
You can use this same process to append a digital signature to a message. You will:
- Choose a hash algorithm. You'll apply it to your entire message.
- Alert the recipient. Use a phone call or another message to tell your recipient of the method you choose.
- Append the hash. Apply the value at the end of your note and send it.
- Decode. The recipient will use the hash value and your public key to reverse the process. If the contents are the same, the contents haven't been altered.
Your computer might also use RSA without your explicit knowledge. Some websites require a quick verification conversation before you can gain access. Information is traded, and it's typically encrypted with RSA.
Is an RSA Formula Safe?
When RSA was released in the 1970s, plenty of people assumed it could never be cracked. We now know that's not true.
Some hackers bypass RSA altogether with brute force attacks. They pound the algorithm with numbers, hoping that one combination will unlock the code and provide the key.
Making your keys longer and more complex is a simple defence. Experts recommend keys that are at least 1024 bits. Protect very valuable data with 2048 bits.
And know that you have options. Some experts believe that RSA is inherently flawed, and no one should use it. They recommend other methods that come with even more complex math. They may take longer to implement, but they could be more secure options.
Get Help From Okta
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Work with Okta and get robust security solutions delivered by people who can explain your options clearly and carefully. Contact us to get started.
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Still Guarding Secrets After Years of Attacks, RSA Earns Accolades for Its Founders. (June 2003). SIAM News.
Cryptographic Padding in RSA. (January 2009). Science Blogs.
RSA Encryption: Keeping the Internet Secure. (March 2014). American Mathematical Society Graduate Student Blogs.
Public-Key Encryption by RSA Algorithm. Steyerbrains.at.
Understanding Public Key Cryptography and the History of RSA. (February 2012). SecurityWeek.
Seriously, Stop Using RSA. (July 2019). Trail of Bits.