Suppose that someone wants to send a message to a receiver, and wants to be sure that no-one else can read the message. However, there is the possibility that someone else opens the letter or hears the electronic communication.

In cryptographic terminology, the message is called plaintext or cleartext. Encoding the contents of the message in such a way that hides its contents from outsiders is called encryption. The encrypted message is called the ciphertext. The process of retrieving the plaintext from the ciphertext is called decryption. Encryption and decryption usually make use of a key, and the coding method is such that
decryption can be performed only by knowing the proper key.

Cryptography is the art or science of keeping messages secret. Cryptanalysis is the art of breaking ciphers, i.e. retrieving the plaintext without knowing the proper key. People who do cryptography are cryptographers, and practitioners of cryptanalysis are cryptanalysts.

Cryptography deals with all aspects of secure messaging, authentication, digital signatures, electronic money, and other applications. Cryptology is the branch of mathematics that studies the mathematical foundations of cryptographic methods.

A method of encryption and decryption is called a cipher. Some cryptographic methods rely on the secrecy of the algorithms; such algorithms are only of historical interest and are not adequate for real-world needs. All modern algorithms use a key to control encryption and decryption; a message can be decrypted only if the key matches the encryption key.

There are two classes of key-based encryption algorithms, symmetric (or secret-key) and asymmetric (or public-key) algorithms. The difference is that symmetric algorithms use the same key for encryption and decryption (or the decryption key is easily derived from the encryption key), whereas asymmetric algorithms use a different key for encryption and decryption, and the decryption key cannot be derived from the encryption key.

Symmetric algorithms can be divided into stream ciphers and block ciphers. Stream ciphers can encrypt a single bit of plaintext at a time, whereas block ciphers take a number of bits (typically 64 bits in modern ciphers), and encrypt them as a single unit. Many symmetric ciphers are described on the algorithms page.

Asymmetric ciphers (also called public-key algorithms or generally public-key cryptography) permit the encryption key to be public (it can even be published in a newspaper), allowing anyone to encrypt with the key, whereas only the proper recipient (who knows the decryption key) can decrypt the message. The encryption key is also called the public key and the decryption key the private key or secret key.

Modern cryptographic algorithms are no longer pencil-and-paper ciphers. Strong cryptographic algorithms are designed to be executed by computers or specialized hardware devices. In most applications, cryptography is done in computer software.

Generally, symmetric algorithms are much faster to execute on a computer than asymmetric ones. In practice they are often used together, so that a public-key algorithm is used to encrypt a randomly generated encryption key, and the random key is used to encrypt the actual message using a symmetric algorithm. This is sometimes called hybrid encryption.

Descriptions of many good cryptographic algorithms are widely and publicly available from any major bookstore, scientific library, patent office, or on the Internet. The most studied and probably the most widely spread symmetric cipher is DES; the upcoming AES might replace it as the most widely used encryption algorithm. RSA is probably the best known asymmetric encryption algorithm. The books page lists several good textbooks on cryptography and related topics.
Some public-key algorithms can be used to generate digital signatures. A digital signature is a small amount of data that was created using some secret key, and there is a public key that can be used to verify that the signature was really generated using the corresponding private key. The algorithm used to generate the signature must be such that without knowing the secret key it is not possible to create a signature that would verify as valid.

Digital signatures are used to verify that a message really comes from the claimed sender (assuming only the sender knows the secret key corresponding to his/her public key). They can also be used to timestamp documents: a trusted party signs the document and its timestamp with his/her secret key, thus testifying that the document existed at the stated time.

Digital signatures can also be used to testify (or certify) that a public key belongs to a particular person. This is done by signing the combination of the key and the information about its owner by a trusted key. The digital signature by a third party (owner of the trusted key), the public key and information about the owner of the public key are often called certificates.

The reason for trusting that third party key may again be that it was signed by another trusted key. Eventually some key must be a root of the trust hierarchy (that is, it is not trusted because it was signed by somebody, but because you believe a priori that the key can be trusted). In a centralized key infrastructure there are very few roots in the trust network (e.g., trusted government agencies; such roots are also called certification authorities). In a distributed infrastructure there need not be any universally accepted roots, and each party may have different trusted roots (such of the party's own key and any keys signed by it). This is the web of trust concept used in e.g. PGP.

A digital signature of an arbitrary document is typically created by computing a message digest from the document, and concatenating it with information about the signer, a timestamp, etc. The resulting string is then encrypted using the private key of the signer using a suitable algorithm. The resulting encrypted block of bits is the
signature. It is often distributed together with information about the public key that was used to sign it. To verify a signature, the recipient first determines whether it trusts that the key belongs to the person it is supposed to belong to (using the web of trust or a priori knowledge), and then decrypts the signature using the public key of the person. If the signature decrypts properly and the information matches that of the message (proper message digest etc.), the signature is accepted as valid.

Several methods for making and verifying digital signatures are freely available. The most widely known algorithm is RSA.

Cryptographic hash functions are used in various contexts, for example to compute the message digest when making a digital signature. A hash function compresses the bits of a message to a fixed-size hash value in a way that distributes the possible messages evenly among the possible hash values. A cryptographic hash function does this in
a way that makes it extremely difficult to come up with a message that would hash to a particular hash value.

Cryptographic hash functions typically produce hash values of 128 or more bits. This number (2128) is vastly larger than the number of different messages likely to ever be exchanged in the world. The reason for requiring more than 128 bits is based on the birthday paradox. The birthday paradox roughly states that given a hash function mapping any message to an 128-bit hash digest, we can expect that the same digest will be computed twice when 264 randomly selected messages
have been hashed. As cheaper memory chips for computers become available it may become necessary to require larger than 128 bit message digests (such as 160 bits as has become standard recently).

Many good cryptographic hash functions are freely available. The most famous cryptographic hash functions are those of the MD family, in particular MD4 and MD5. MD4 has been broken, and MD5, although still in widespread use, should be considered insecure as well. SHA-1 and RipeMD-160 are two examples that are still considered state of the art.