In my most recent postings, I sort of took the perspective, that ‘RSA’ is the only form of public key cryptography. But in reality, this is far from true.

As far as the actual public-key methods go, there is also ‘El-Gamal’ and ‘Diffie-Hellman’ in public use, as well as ‘DSA’. The last of those is only useful for signing, not for encrypting. But what that means in practice, requires that people understand another concept in public-key cryptography, which is called ‘hybrid encryption’, which marries one of the public key exchanges with strong, symmetrical encryption. Symmetrical encryption is any scheme where the same key can be used to decrypt, which was used to encrypt. Symmetrical methods in use include ‘AES’ and ‘Blowfish’, and several others.

A concept which exists purely with RSA, is that a sender of a message can use the public key of the recipient to encrypt, so that only the recipient will be able to decrypt, using his own private key.

Well, if we consider SSL-secured Web-sites, we do not see that our Web-browser needs to build any public and private key-pairs. And so according to that, it might be imaginable that the server has a public key to receive data with securely, but it is not obvious how the browser receives data securely from the server. And what actually happens with SSL, is that a pseudo-random key is built essentially by the client, and is then sent to the server securely via RSA. That key is then used by both peers, to send and receive the actual user data via strong, symmetrical encryption. And this idea, of only using public key-exchange to encrypt a strong, symmetrical key once per session, is referred to as hybrid encryption.

This also makes sense from the standpoint, that a single public-key, RSA encryption requires much more CPU time, than the repeated use of AES aor Blowfish.

TLS key exchange is based on methods, that more closely resemble Diffie-Hellman than RSA, but again forms a basis of hybrid encryption.

And this is also why SSH, which is also known as ‘Secure Shell Protocol’, only requires that the client have a DSA key. Given that an SSH client uses his public key to authenticate himself, in theory an SSH server can be set to allow RSA authentication, but then all the client must do is to encrypt a piece of data which he cannot control, using his private key, to prove to the server that he is in fact the owner of a stated public key.

Hence, for SSH authentication, DSA works just as well for the client to use.

Dirk