Symmetric-key algorithm

Symmetric-key algorithms are algorithms for cryptography that use the same for both encryption of and decryption of . The keys may be identical or there may be a simple transformation to go between the two keys. The keys, in practice, represent a between two or more parties that can be used to maintain a private information link. This requirement that both parties have access to the secret key is one of the main drawbacks of symmetric key encryption, in comparison to (also known as ).


Types of symmetric-key algorithms

Symmetric-key encryption can use either or .

  • Stream ciphers encrypt the digits (typically bytes) of a message one at a time.
  • Block ciphers take a number of bits and encrypt them as a single unit, padding the plaintext so that it is a multiple of the block size. Blocks of 64 bits were commonly used. The Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) algorithm approved by in December 2001, and the block cipher mode of operation use 128-bit blocks.


Examples of popular symmetric-key algorithms include , , AES (Rijndael), , , , , , , Safer+/++ (Bluetooth), and .

Cryptographic primitives based on symmetric ciphers

Symmetric ciphers are commonly used to achieve other than just encryption.

Encrypting a message does not guarantee that this message is not changed while encrypted. Hence often a message authentication code is added to a ciphertext to ensure that changes to the ciphertext will be noted by the receiver. Message authentication codes can be constructed from symmetric ciphers (e.g. ).

However, symmetric ciphers cannot be used for purposes except by involving additional parties. See the ISO/IEC 13888-2 standard.

Another application is to build hash functions from block ciphers. See one-way compression function for descriptions of several such methods.

Construction of symmetric ciphers

Many modern block ciphers are based on a construction proposed by . Feistel’s construction makes it possible to build invertible functions from other functions that are themselves not invertible.

Security of symmetric ciphers

Symmetric ciphers have historically been susceptible to , , and . Careful construction of the functions for each round can greatly reduce the chances of a successful attack.

Key management

Key establishment

Symmetric-key algorithms require both the sender and the recipient of a message to have the same secret key. All early cryptographic systems required one of those people to somehow receive a copy of that secret key over a physically secure channel.

Nearly all modern cryptographic systems still use symmetric-key algorithms internally to encrypt the bulk of the messages, but they eliminate the need for a physically secure channel by using or some other public-key protocol to securely come to agreement on a fresh new secret key for each message ().

Key generation

When used with asymmetric ciphers for key transfer, pseudorandom key generators are nearly always used to generate the symmetric cipher session keys. However, lack of randomness in those generators or in their is disastrous and has led to cryptanalytic breaks in the past. Therefore, it is essential that an implementation uses a source of high for its initialization.

Reciprocal cipher

A reciprocal cipher is a cipher where, just as one enters the into the cryptography system to get the , one could enter the ciphertext into the same place in the system to get the plaintext. A reciprocal cipher is also sometimes referred as self-reciprocal cipher. Examples of reciprocal ciphers include:


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