What Is Encryption?

What You’ll Learn

  1. The basic elements of encryption: the plaintext, the ciphertext, the cipher (or encryption protocol), and the cryptographic key
  2. How some classic encryption methods work
  3. Ways that encryption can be broken
  4. An unbreakable cipher

Let’s start with the basics—think “pen and paper encryption”—before moving on to more complex encryption methods made possible by computers.

Encryption is the process of scrambling a message so that it can only be unscrambled (and read) by the intended parties. The method by which you scramble the original message, or plaintext, is called the cipher or encryption protocol. In almost all cases, the cipher is not intended to be kept secret. The scrambled, unreadable, encrypted message is called the ciphertext and can be safely shared. Most ciphers require an additional piece of information called a cryptographic key to encrypt and decrypt (scramble and unscramble) messages.

A Simple Cipher: The Caesar Cipher

Consider the first and perhaps simplest cipher: the Caesar cipher. Here, each letter in the message is shifted by an agreed-upon number of letters in the alphabet. For example, suppose you wanted to encrypt the plaintext


by shifting each letter in the message forward by three places in the alphabet, so that A becomes D, B becomes E, and so on, with Z wrapping around to the start of the alphabet to become C. The plaintext gets encrypted to the following ciphertext:


To decrypt this message, the recipient would do the reverse, shifting each letter in the message backward three places in the alphabet, so Z becomes W and A wraps around through the end of the alphabet to become X. For the recipient to be able to decrypt the message (quickly), they would have to know the key to the cipher. For the Caesar cipher, this is the number of places that each letter is shifted in the alphabet; in this example, it is the number 3. A Caesar cipher key can also be represented by a letter of the alphabet corresponding to the result of the translation from A. For example, a shift of 3 would be the key D, a shift of 23 would be the key Z, and the shift of zero (the identity shift) would be the key A.

Let’s review the terms. In this example, to apply the cipher (or encryption protocol), one must simply follow these instructions: “To encrypt, shift each letter in the plaintext message forward in the alphabet by n letters. To decrypt, shift each letter in the message ciphertext backward in the alphabet by n letters.” The key is the amount of the shift, n.

Of course, the Caesar cipher is not a strong cipher, and you certainly shouldn’t trust it to keep your plans secret. All an adversary would need to do to break (or crack) your secret code (ciphertext) is to try every possible backward shift through the alphabet. There are not many possibilities, so this wouldn’t take long: since the key A makes the ciphertext equal the plaintext, there are only twenty-five possible keys. Such an attack is called a brute-force attack, in which an adversary attempts to decipher an encrypted message by trying every possible key. This attack is feasible in the case of the Caesar cipher because there are very few possible keys.

A Slightly More Complicated Cipher: The Vigenère Cipher

The Vigenère cipher is a set of Caesar ciphers, each with its own key. Typically the key is given as a word, and the position of the word’s letter in the alphabet indicates how the letter A is shifted, as in a Caesar cipher. This is easiest to see with an example. Suppose you wish to encrypt the plaintext


with the key



  • Encrypt every third letter starting with the first letter of the plaintext (R, P, T …) with a Caesar cipher that maps A to A (a shift of zero, or a Caesar cipher with the key A or 0).
  • Encrypt every third letter starting with the second letter of the plaintext (E, E, E …) with a Caesar cipher that maps A to C (a Caesar cipher using the key C or 2).
  • Encrypt every third letter starting with the third letter of the plaintext (S, C, X) with a Caesar cipher that maps A to T (a Caesar cipher using the key 19).

Applying these three Caesar ciphers results in the ciphertext:


To break this cipher, suppose your adversary knows the length of your key: your adversary would try to decrypt the ciphertext with all possible three-letter words (or, in general, any three-letter sequence of letters) of that length. In this example, that would require at most 25 × 26 × 26 = 16,900 attempts, which is more than could be easily attempted by hand but is trivially done by a computer. If your adversary doesn’t know the length of your key, then they would have to try many more possible keys (as many as 25 + 25 × 26 + 25 × 26 × 26 + …) to apply this brute-force method to break the encryption. Notice that the longer your key is, the more difficult brute-force methods are—and the harder an adversary must work to break the encryption.

In Context: The Unbreakable Onetime Pad

A Vigenère cipher—whose key is a sequence of randomly selected letters and is at least as long as the message plaintext—makes possible a cipher known as the onetime pad. Historically, the key itself would be written on a pad of paper and distributed among communicating parties. To encrypt, a Vigenère cipher is applied to the plaintext, where each letter in the onetime pad is used only once before proceeding to the next letter and so on. Decryption relies on possession of this onetime pad, and the starting position in the key. It is impossible to break this cipher without the key—that is, it is impossible to guess the key and crack the ciphertext, even with unlimited time and resources. This is because a ciphertext of a given length could correspond to any plaintext of the same length. For example, without knowledge of the random key, the onetime pad-encrypted ciphertext SOU DUCYFUK RXL HQKPJ could (with equal probability) correspond to either the plaintext ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL or FEW ANIMALS ARE HAPPY. Without the key, there is no way to know what the intended (plaintext) message is! Omitting spaces between words or encrypting the spaces between words (using a twenty-seven-letter alphabet ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ_, where _ is a space) would make it far more difficult to guess even the set of possible plaintext messages.

Of course, the onetime pad has the practical problem of how to exchange the key (the onetime pad itself), which is as long as the message, or as long as the total length of all possible future messages. Despite that, it has been used historically, with groups sharing a onetime pad in person and then sending messages over insecure channels. In the late 1980s, the African National Congress (ANC), at the time fighting apartheid in South Africa, used onetime pads to encrypt messages between foreign supporters and in-country operatives. The onetime pads (the keys) were physically transported by a trusted air steward who worked the Amsterdam-to-Johannesburg route. Incidentally, the ANC also computerized the encryption and decryption, making it possible to translate encrypted messages into tonal sequences transmitted over a phone connection and recorded to—or received from—an answering machine, allowing for asynchronous communication.

What to Learn Next

External Resources


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Defend Dissent by Glencora Borradaile is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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