Mixing asymmetric and symmetric encryption in .NET part II

Introduction

In the previous post we started working on a mixed encryption demo project. The goal is to show how the benefits of symmetric and asymmetric encryption can be used in a single encryption-decryption flow. Symmetric encryption is fast but key distribution is problematic. Asymmetric encryption solves the key distribution problem but is on the other hand slow. Fortunately we can use both at the same time for increased security.

Previously we built the encryption service components: the interfaces and their implementations. Now it’s time to connect them.

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Mixing asymmetric and symmetric encryption in .NET part I

Introduction

In this post we briefly went through symmetric encryption in .NET. We know that symmetric encryption requires a single cryptographic key for both encryption and decryption. The AES standard is the most widely used symmetric encryption and generally it’s very difficult to guess the right key for an attacker. Symmetric encryption is fast but key distribution is problematic since all parties involved in the encryption process must have access to it. If it is compromised then it can be difficult to revoke it and let all legitimate parties that things have gone wrong.

This post on the other hand discussed asymmetric encryption. With asymmetric encryption we don’t have a single key but a key-pair: a public and a private key that belong together. This means that they depend on each other. However, the private key cannot be derived from the public key. The public key can be distributed to anyone who wants to send us an encrypted message. We then decrypt the cipher text with our private key. The private key must stay with us. It can be stored as an XML string in a file or a database. Alternatively we can store it in the Windows key store. The most common implementation is the RSA standard. Therefore asymmetric encryption solves the key distribution problem. On the other hand asymmetric encryption is slow as it involves some very complex mathematical computations. Therefore it is not really a good option if long strings need to be encrypted or if data encryption is heavily used by an application even for short strings.

This is where mixed or hybrid encryption enters the picture which brings together the best of both worlds: the speed of symmetric encryption and increased security of asymmetric encryption. This is the topic of the present and the next post.

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How to store the asymmetric keys in the Windows key store with C#

Introduction

In this post we briefly looked through asymmetric encryption in .NET. This encryption type requires two keys as opposed to symmetric encryption where the same key is used for encryption and decryption. In asymmetric encryption we have a public and a private key. The public key can be distributed so that other people can encrypt their messages to us. Then we use our private key to decrypt the ciphertext and read the original message. Therefore we don’t have to worry about the public key getting into the wrong hands. On the other hand asymmetric encryption is significantly slower than symmetric encryption due to the higher mathematical complexity.

In the post referenced above we saw how to store the asymmetric key-pair in an XML string. You can save this string in a file or database for later retrieval. There’s at least one more option for storage which is the cryptographic key store on Windows. We’ll go through how to use it in this post.

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Overview of asymmetric encryption in .NET

Introduction

Asymmetric encryption is based on a pair of cryptographic keys. One of the keys is public, i.e. anyone can have access to it. The other key is private which should be kept secret. The keys are complementary which means that they go hand in hand, they are not independent of each other. If a value is calculated as the public key then the private key cannot be calculated independently otherwise the encryption process will fail. Normally the public key is used to encrypt a message and the private key is there for the decryption process but they can be used in the opposite direction as well. Asymmetric algorithms are also called Public Key Cryptography.

The most important advantage of asymmetric over symmetric encryption is that we don’t need to worry about distributing the public key. The key used in symmetric encryption must be known to all parties taking part in the encryption/decryption process which increases the chances of the key landing in the wrong hands. With asymmetric encryption we only need to worry about storing the private key, the public key can be freely distributed. For a hacker it is not practical to attempt to calculate the private key based on the public key, that is close to impossible to achieve.

However, asymmetric encryption is a very complex mathematical process which is a lot slower than symmetric encryption. Also, storing the private key can still be problematic.

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Overview of symmetric encryption in .NET

Introduction

A symmetric encryption algorithm is one where the cryptographic key is the same for both encryption and decryption and is shared among the parties involved in the process.

Ideally only a small group of reliable people should have access to this key. Attackers decipher an encrypted message rather than trying to defeat the algorithm itself. The key can vary in size so the attacker will need to know this first. Once they know this then they will try combinations of possible key characters.

A clear disadvantage with this approach is that distributing and storing keys in a safe and reliable manner is difficult. On the other hand symmetric algorithms are fast.

In this short overview we’ll look at the symmetric encryption algorithms currently supported in .NET.

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Hashing passwords with a password based key derivation function in .NET

In this post we saw a basic hashing technique using a password and a salt. We added an extra random set of bytes to the password and hashed the combined byte array instead of just the password bytes. We can store the salt along with the hash in our database. The main purpose of adding a salt to the password is to increase its entropy which more or less means randomness.

Hashing the password with an extra salt like that may still not be as secure as we think it is. The processing power of today’s fast computers and the increasing size of available rainbow tables keep pushing the limits of what’s available to crack with brute force attacks. One way to increase the difficulty of cracking a password is to keep hashing its hash in an iterative manner. Password-based key derivation functions help us achieve that and we’ll see an example of their usage in this post.

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How to hash passwords with a salt in .NET

In this post we learnt about using hashing in .NET. We also saw one of its basic functions in the same post which is message verification. In this post we saw how hashing coupled with a random key can be used for message authentication.

We also mentioned another common usage of hashing which is password storage. A password should never be stored as clear text in your system. Instead we save its hash value and when a user enters a password in a login field then we compare the hashed values instead of the plain string passwords. However, a simple one-way hash is generally still not good enough.

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