Basic Cryptography Without Fluff

Many topics in cryptography on this blog so far, but not many basic topics. This post is a crack at providing such an approach. With luck, it should bring utility to unfamiliar folk, but also grins for folk familiar with this art.

What is cryptography? A way of hiding information? Magic moon math?

I think cryptography is an art of privacy, rigidity, and trust. It allows hiding information, by folks who want to own this information without sharing it. It also allows controlling that information, so that bad actors cannot do any manipulations of it. Cryptography also has a capacity for functionality not known prior. Blockchains, for illustration, saw unfamiliar cryptography, such as unknowing proofs, and thus brought bright and cool applications to light. ZCash is a good illustration of this. But, for now, I’ll start with basic topics.

Data Hiding

Data hiding was among many first applications of cryptography; many trials in our past, but not of much utility today.

A basic illustration of how data hiding works: you hold a dispatch that you want to forward to a pal, but bad actors might scan any dispatch you forward; you want to try to fashion a hiding of that dispatch as it transits.

First, you and your pal fashion a sigil, which allows you to accomplish data hiding. A hiding transformation works with a sigil, and a dispatch, and forms a dark dispatch. I also call a normal dispatch a light dispatch, in contrast with this dark dispatch. You can also do a contrary transformation, an unhiding transformation, which works with that sigil, and a dark dispatch, undoing that hiding, and giving you an original light dispatch.

A hiding sigil and an unhiding sigil must match: no variation at all. Both participants must know this matching sigil to forward communication. Without a matching sigil, you cannot obtain any information about a light dispatch from a dark dispatch. In addition, you cannot obtain information about a sigil from any dark dispatch it forms.

For sigils must match, I call this form of data hiding: similar sigil data hiding (SSDH). Most HTTP traffic is in fact HTTPS, which has this kind of data hiding (that ‘S’ stands for “sigil”). This form of hiding is ubiquitous, and most common.

An old approach is to hold a sigil as big as your dispatch, and doing data hiding by xoring that sigil with your dispatch. This approach is known as individual pad data hiding. A main flaw with this approach is that you must hold a sigil as big as your dispatch:

$$ (s \oplus d_1) \oplus (s \oplus d_2) = d_1 \oplus d_2 $$

This quantity, $d_1 \oplus d_2$ might hold information you don’t want public. This is why it’s known as an individual pad: a sigil can only do hiding for just an individual dispatch.

Nowadays, you might work with algorithms without this flaw. An algorithm in this class is ChaCha20, which works with fast instructions such as addition, bit shifting, and rotation. Data hiding with ChaCha20 works bit by bit, which is why you might call it a trickling data hiding algorithm.

Dissimilar Sigil Data Hiding

With SSDH, you must fashion a matching sigil with all your pals you want to contact. For $N$ pals, you must hold $N^2$ sigils. Mainting this mass of sigils is painful. What if you could only hold $N$ “sigils”, with which you could contact a pal holding that “sigil”?

This vision is what dissimilar sigil data hiding (DSDH) is for. All participants hold a public sigil, and a privy sigil. Your public sigil is known by all, but only you should know your own privy sigil, and you should hold it in hiding.

You can do data hiding to forward a dispatch to any party, using only a public sigil for that party. This forms a dark dispatch, as in similar sigil data hiding. That party can do a contrary transformation, using a privy sigil, which must match its public sigil. Without that privy sigil, you cannot do any unhiding of that dark dispatch to know its original light dispatch.

In summary, with DSDH, anybody can forward a dispatch to any participant, using that participant’s public sigil, which forms a dark dispatch. But, without a privy sigil to do an unhiding of this dispatch, you cannot know anything about is original dispatch. No information about privy sigils can flow out of a dark dispatch too, as in SSDH.

Accomplishing This

This is hard to do, actually. An important work to do this is from 1976, using big multiplication groups in a ring.

An additional approach, which is known as RSA, from its original authors' last initials, is to work with a product of two primary factors. It is not known how to factor this product fast, and this allows you to form a data hiding function which has a trapdoor, with which you can undo that hiding. In this situation, our trapdoor is knowing how to factor this product. This allows you to fashion a dissimilar sigil data hiding algorithm in a straightforward way.

Finally, I am fond of cubic arcs in particular. Cubic arcs know an origin in a fascinating location in math, but surprisingly cryptography has found utility in this location. Simplifying a bit, a cubic arc is a formula of this kind:

$$ y^2 = x^3 + a x + b $$

An arc contains all points in a ring which satisfy its formula. What is fascinating is that you can add two points on this arc, forming a third point on it. A cubic arc on a ring with no nil divisors, (and a bound on its count), forms a group! This group is similar to our multiplication groups from that first approach, but, in contrast, is tiny, and thus fast to work with too.

Digital Stamps

DSDH is similar to SSDH. Both allow you to accomplish a kind of data hiding, although SSDH has both participants holding matching privy sigils, but DSDH allows you to do hiding with just a public sigil.

A digital stamp is akin to a mirror of DSDH, and work with a functionality that’s dissimilar from data hiding. A digital stamp allows you to form a stamp on a dispatch, using a privy sigil. Anybody can audit this stamp, using your public sigil, and confirm that this stamp was of your making. Without your privy sigil, making a stamp which can pass this confirmation should stay difficult.

As an illustration, look at an approval for a financial transaction. You don’t want bad actors to obtain bogus financial transactions without your approval. A digital stamp could allow your bank to confirm that any transaction found its origin with your approval.

Blockchains such as Bitcoin can with digital stamps to allow this approval of transactions without having a root authority such as a bank approving all transactions.

To accomplish digital stamps, you work with similar math tools as with dissimilar sigil data hiding. Our RSA approach has an adapation for digital stamps. Multiplication groups also find an analogous algorithm, known as DSA (digital stamp algorithm). With an instantiation using cubic args, this is known as CADSA (cubic arc digital stamp algorithm). This is what Bitcoin, and many similar blockchains draw on.

I’m also fond of Schnorr stamps, which work, most commonly, with cubic arcs too.

Unknowing Proofs

You might say that unknowing proofs form a broad kind of digital stamp. Many digital stamp algorithms, such as Schnorr stamps, work by proving that you know a privy sigil in association with with a public sigil. This proof is also bound to a particular dispatch, allowing it to act as a stamp. But, this proof holds our privy data, such as our privy sigil, in hiding. This ability to hold information in hiding, but still form proofs with that information, is known as an unknowing ability.

Broadly, an unknowning proof algorithm allows you to form proofs of arbitrary formulas, involving both public and privy data. Any privy data is still in hiding, no privy information can flow from our proof.

As an illustration, you might show a tax authority that your salary fits in a particular tax band, without showing a particular amount. You would form an unknowing proof using this band, and your salary, with this salary in hiding.

Unknowing proofs bring a lot of utility for having privacy. You can do many things without having to drop privacy at all.

Blockchains such as ZCash work with unknowing proofs to form privy transactions, which can hold information about transaction amounts and participants in hiding. Thus, you hold a lot of privacy with blockchains such as ZCash, particulary in comparison with blockchains such as Bitcoin, which only allow public transactions, which show particular amounts and participants.

Any formula is a possibility with unknowing proofs, so your imagination is your limitation.


This was just a short post sampling a handful of important topics in cryptography. With luck, you found this information of utility, although I could go into a lot of additional minutia about any topic in this post. A month or so ago, my blog had a book list on cryptography, which you might also find intriguing.