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one time pad

Vernam's Cipher

Gilbert Vernam was a digital systems designer from the early 20th century. He invented the stream cipher, what browsers often use today to encrypt messages exchanged with protected web sites. In his days, however, the mechanism of choice was the relay: an electromagnetic switch. Vernam also described the one-time pad, and noted the danger in reusing the key stream.

What, then is a Vernam cipher? Is it a stream cipher or a one-time pad? I've seen the term used both ways.

Now we can check the source. Steve Bellovin recently blogged on Vernam's work, and posted a PDF of Vernam's original  paper. Vernam wrote the paper for an AIEE conference (that's one of the precursors of today's IEEE - Bellovin negotiated permission to post the historic paper).

If we look at the historical description, Vernam does not restrict his cipher to the one-time pad case. Thus, a Vernam cipher in practice might - or might not - be a one-time pad. [revised 9/7/09]

That's not a one-time pad!

It's amazing how subtle a one-time pad really is. On one level they're deceptively simple: you simply match up the text of your message with a collection of "random bits" you share with the recipient. To decrypt, the recipient matches up a copy of those "random bits" to retrieve the message.

The trick is in the definition of "random bits."

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Stream Cipher Reuse: A Graphic Example

Take a look at the following image. You should see two different 'messages' here.

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  Two messages

This particular mis-mash of messages reflects the failure of otherwise strong cryptography: the improper implementation of a one-time pad or a stream cipher.

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One-Time Pads

The one-time pad is the only encryption technique that has been mathematically proven to be uncrackable. While hard to use, it has often been the choice for highly sensitive traffic. Soviet spies used one-time pads in the 1940s and -50s. The Washington-Moscow "hot line" also uses one-time pads. However, the technique is hard to use correctly.

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Encrypting with XOR: A Graphic Example

The exclusive or operation - a logical function applied to binary bits, like AND, OR, and NOT - is a fundamental encryption technique. It is often used in stream ciphers, which are widely used in web browsers when connecting to secure web servers.

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Stream Ciphers

Whenever your browser establishes a “secure” connection to a web site, it encrypts the data. Traditionally, the browser and site use a stream cipher called Rivest Cipher #4 (RC4), although some sites use newer techniques.

Stream ciphers use a deceptively simple mechanism: you combine the plaintext data, bit by bit, with “key” bits, using the exclusive or operation. This is often abbreviated xor, and denoted by ⊕ - a circle with a cross.

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