I wrote the following message as part of a discussion on the old Firewalls mailing list in 1996. The message was part of a discussion on the use of MLS technology to protect Internet servers from attack. The basic concepts still apply in some ways, though the threats have evolved in many other ways.
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.
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.
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.