Of course, the impact of cracking the Enigma machine cannot be understated. It’s probably best put by Sir Harry Hensley, who is a British intelligence historian. And he wrote, “My own conclusion is that it shortened the war by not less than two years and probably by four years … we wouldn’t have in fact been able to do the Normandy landings, even if we had left the Mediterranean aside, until at the earliest 1946, probably a bit later.” So really, the ability of the Allies to decrypt and decode the German messages sent via the Enigma machine was really important toward ending the war effort. And it’s almost unfathomable to imagine how bad World War Two had been, had it gone on for two or even four more years. And, of course, this is just focusing on the work in the European Theater. There was also another program called Ultra. It was based in the Pacific Theater, focused on decrypting some of the Japanese messages that were sent during World War Two. And so later on, we may add some videos to this module discussing that program, as well.
But let’s move into modern days and talk a little bit about Claude Shannon again. We’ve talked about Claude Shannon several times in this class before, but one of his most lasting claims to fame is as The Father of Modern Information Theory. And his work after the war really helped build the modern cryptography systems that we use today. He realized that there was a very mathematical way that you can encrypt data so that it could be very, very difficult to decrypt that data without understanding the keys used to build it. So because of a lot of his work in the 1950s, we refer to Claude Shannon as The Father of Modern Information Theory.
So one of the modern forms of encryption is called symmetric key encryption. And in symmetric key encryption, we take some sort of data such as the plain text hello world, and we encrypt it using a very particular algorithm and a key. And so the algorithm uses the data that we want to encrypt and the key, and it will produce what’s called ciphertext. And so the ciphertext is the encrypted form of the data that we can send and receive and do everything we want. And then to decrypt it, we would use the same key and sometimes a similar algorithm or a slightly different algorithm to get back to the plain text. So symmetric key encryption does have some advantages and disadvantages. One of the biggest things to remember with symmetric key encryption is that it uses a shared secret key. Both the person encrypting the message and decrypting the message need to have a copy of the key. And so that creates this interesting problem of how do we share the key without knowing that someone else got ahold of the key. And likewise, if we encrypt something with a shared key, and the other person has lost that key, then we may not know who has access to that data, making it really kind of complex. However, shared key encryption and symmetric key encryption does still get used from time to time. Most of the time, it’s used for file encryption, things like encrypted zip files, usually use symmetric key encryption. You use the same password to encrypt them as you use to decrypt them.
The other form of modern encryption that we’ll talk about is public key encryption. And public key encryption is a little bit more complex because it uses two different keys. So we start by generating two keys, a public key and a private key. The private key we keep for ourselves; we don’t give that to anybody else. A lot of times the private key is unique to a particular computer itself. Then we would give our public key to anybody; it’s public. We could tattoo it on our forehead. We really don’t care because that’s the public key. Then, anybody that wants to send us encrypted data, could take their data and lock it using the public key that we have made public available. And as soon as they lock it with that public key, the only person that can unlock it is the person with the matching private key. And so if they want to send something that only we can read, they lock it with our public key, and then we can unlock it with our private key. Likewise, we can go the other way, if we want to send something out to the world and have the world know that it came from us, we can lock it with our private key and post it out on the web along with our public key. And so anybody that wants to can look at that data, unlock it with our public key. And as long as they trust that that’s our public key, they know that we are the only person that could have sent that message. This is how things such as email signatures, the actual like signed signatures work. You can also do this on websites. If you look at your websites, they’ll have a lock that usually says it’s encrypted. And part of that is that the data is encrypted, but also part of that is that it’s verified that we know where that data is coming from using a process based on public key encryption. And then of course, we can combine the two. For example, if we’re sending our credit card data back and forth with a website, we can use their public key, and they can use our public key in very unique ways. For example, if we want to send our credit card data, what we could do is we could lock it using their public key so that they are the only person that can read it. But we can also sign it with our private key so that they know that the only person that could have sent that data is us. And so by combining the two, we can get both protected data, and we can get it signed and verified so we know where it came from. So let’s take a look at a quick video on Diffie-Hellman key exchange, which is how we can actually share keys back and forth and make sure that both users have a key that they can use to encrypt data.