The basics of crypto, in 4.5 pages, using only small words lawmakers can understand

Ed Felten (previously) — copyfighter, Princeton computer scientist, former deputy CTO of the White House — has published a four-and-a-half-page "primer for policymakers" on cryptography that explains how encryption for filesystems and encryption for messaging works, so they can be less ignorant.

It is a remarkable and clear piece of technology writing, perhaps the best example of its type I've ever read. It's clearly the results of explaining the same thing, over and over and over and over again, using trial-and-error to identify the places where the audience gets tripped up, until what remains is a perfectly clear explanation of something that's both difficult to understand and vitally important.

Suppose two users, Alice and Bob, want to send a series of messages to each other. They want to
use encryption to protect the confidentiality of messages (so that nobody else can learn the
contents of messages) and the integrity of messages (so that nobody else can tamper with
messages without detection); and they want to use encryption to authenticate each other, so
they both know they are not communicating with an impostor.

For encrypted communication, each party will generate a long-term identity key, which they
keep secret. A party can use its long-term identity key to prove its identity to other parties.

As depicted below, encrypted communication operates in two phases. In the first phase, the
handshake, the two parties exchange a series of specially constructed messages. If all goes well,
the initial handshake has two results: each party gets confirmation of the other's identity (i.e.
that the other party is the real Alice or Bob, and not an impostor), and Alice and Bob agree on a
secret session key that is known only to the two of them. The details of how the initial handshake
procedure gets these results are complex but not directly relevant to the policy discussion.
Having completed the initial handshake, Alice and Bob can proceed to send messages to

Nuts and Bolts of Encryption: A Primer for Policymakers [Ed Felten/Princeton]

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