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1.3. What are public keys and private keys? (PGP)




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This article is from the PGP FAQ, by Jeff Licquia jalicqui@prairienet.org with numerous contributions by others.

1.3. What are public keys and private keys? (PGP)

With conventional encryption schemes, keys must be exchanged with
everyone you wish to talk to by some other secure method such as face
to face meetings, or via a trusted courier. The problem is that you
need a secure channel before you can establish a secure channel! With
conventional encryption, either the same key is used for both
encryption and decryption or it is easy to convert either key to the
other. With public key encryption, the encryption and decryption keys
are different and it is impossible for anyone to convert one to the
other. Therefore, the encryption key can be made public knowledge, and
posted in a database somewhere. Anyone wanting to send you a message
would obtain your encryption key from this database or some other
source and encrypt his message to you. This message can't be decrypted
with the encryption key. Therefore nobody other than the intended
receiver can decrypt the message. Even the person who encrypted it can
not reverse the process. When you receive a message, you use your
secret decryption key to decrypt the message. This secret key never
leaves your computer. In fact, your secret key is itself encrypted to
protect it from anyone snooping around your computer.

 

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