Key Management

As the entire operation is dependent upon the security of the keys, it is sometimes appropriate to devise a fairly complex mechanism to manage them.

Where a single individual is involved, often direct input of a value or string will suffice. The 'memorised' value will then be re-input to retrieve the data, similar to password usage.

Sometimes, many individuals are involved, with a requirement for unique keys to be sent to each for retrieval/decryption of transmitted data. In this case, the keys themselves may be encrypted. A number of comprehensive and proven key management systems are available for these situations.


The two components required to encrypt data are an algorithm and a key. The algorithm generally known, and the key is kept secret.

The key is a very large number that should be impossible to guess, and of a size that makes exhaustive search impractical.

In a symmetric cryptosystem, the same key is used for encryption and decryption. In an asymmetric cryptosystem, the key used for decryption is different from the key used for encryption.


In an asymmetric system the encryption and decryption keys are different but related. The encryption key is known as the public key and the decryption key is known as the private key. The public and private keys are known as a key pair.

Where a certification authority is used, remember that it is the public key that is certified and not the private key. This may seem obvious, but it is not unknown for a user to insist on having his private key certified!


Keys should whenever possible be distributed by electronic means, enciphered under previously established higher-level keys. There comes a point, of course when no higher-level key exists and it is necessary to establish the key manually.

A common way of doing this is to split the key into several parts (components) and entrust the parts to a number of key management personnel. The idea is that none of the key parts should contain enough information to reveal anything about the key itself.

Usually, the key is combined by means of the exclusive-OR operation within a secure environment.

In the case of DES keys, there should be an odd number of components, each component having odd parity. Odd parity is preserved when all the components are combined. Further, each component should be accompanied by a key check value to guard against keying errors when the component is entered into the system.

A key check value for the combined components should also be available as a final check when the last component is entered.

A problem that occurs with depressing regularity in the real world is when it is necessary to re-enter a key from its components. This is always an emergency situation, and it is usually found that one or more of the key component holders cannot be found. For this reason it is prudent to arrange matters so that the components are distributed among the key holders in such a way that not all of them need to be present.

For example, if there are three components (C1, C2, C3) and three key holders (H1, H2, H3) then H1 could have (C2, C3), H2 could have (C1, C3) and H3 could have (C1, C2). In this arrangement any two out of the three key holders would be sufficient.

In more sophisticated systems the components may be held on smart cards.


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Cryptography, Encryption, Decryption, Key Management

Copyright 2003