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Symmetric vs. Asymmetric Encryption – What are differences?

Let’s understand the key differences between symmetric vs asymmetric encryption. In a simple word, asymmetric encryption is more secure than symmetric encryption.

Information security has grown to be a colossal factor, especially with modern communication networks, leaving loopholes that could be leveraged to devastating effects. This article presents a discussion on two popular encryption schemes that can be used to tighten communication security in Symmetric and Asymmetric Encryption. In principle, the best way to commence this discussion is to start from the basics first. Thus, we look at the definitions of algorithms and key cryptographic concepts and then dive into the core part of the discussion where we present a comparison of the two techniques.
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An algorithm is basically a procedure or a formula for solving a data snooping problem. An encryption algorithm is a set of mathematical procedure for performing encryption on data. Through the use of such an algorithm, information is made in the cipher text and requires the use of a key to transforming the data into its original form. This brings us to the concept of cryptography that has long been used in information security in communication systems.


Cryptography is a method of using advanced mathematical principles in storing and transmitting data in a particular form so that only those whom it is intended can read and process it. Encryption is a key concept in cryptography – It is a process whereby a message is encoded in a format that cannot be read or understood by an eavesdropper. The technique is old and was first used by Caesar to encrypt his messages using Caesar cipher. A plain text from a user can be encrypted to a ciphertext, then send through a communication channel and no eavesdropper can interfere with the plain text. When it reaches the receiver end, the ciphertext is decrypted to the original plain text.

Cryptography Terms

  • Encryption: It is the process of locking up information using cryptography. Information that has been locked this way is encrypted.
  • Decryption: The process of unlocking the encrypted information using cryptographic techniques.
  • Key: A secret like a password used to encrypt and decrypt information. There are a few different types of keys used in cryptography.
  • Steganography: It is actually the science of hiding information from people who would snoop on you. The difference between steganography and encryption is that the would-be snoopers may not be able to tell there’s any hidden information in the first place.

What is Symmetric Encryption?

Symmetric Encryption

This is the simplest kind of encryption that involves only one secret key to cipher and decipher information. Symmetric encryption is an old and best-known technique. It uses a secret key that can either be a number, a word or a string of random letters. It is a blended with the plain text of a message to change the content in a particular way. The sender and the recipient should know the secret key that is used to encrypt and decrypt all the messages. Blowfish, AES, RC4, DES, RC5, and RC6 are examples of symmetric encryption. The most widely used symmetric algorithm is AES-128, AES-192, and AES-256.

The main disadvantage of the symmetric key encryption is that all parties involved have to exchange the key used to encrypt the data before they can decrypt it.

Pros and Cons of Symmetric Encryption


  • Faster: Since it’s using a single key for encryption and decryption, it’s faster to execute.
  • Identity verification: It uses password authentication as a security purpose to prove the receiver’s identity.
  • Easy to execute & manage: Users have only one key for encryption and decryption so it’s easy to execute and manage.


  • The chances of sharing encryption keys securely are less; it is difficult and challenging to share keys in Symmetric Encryption.
  • Symmetric is not that scalable, as it’s not suitable for various users.

What is Asymmetric Encryption?

Asymmetric Encryption

Asymmetric encryption is also known as public key cryptography, which is a relatively new method, compared to symmetric encryption. Asymmetric encryption uses two keys to encrypt a plain text. Secret keys are exchanged over the Internet or a large network. It ensures that malicious persons do not misuse the keys. It is important to note that anyone with a secret key can decrypt the message and this is why asymmetric encryption uses two related keys to boosting security. A public key is made freely available to anyone who might want to send you a message. The second private key is kept a secret so that you can only know.

A message that is encrypted using a public key can only be decrypted using a private key, while also, a message encrypted using a private key can be decrypted using a public key. Security of the public key is not required because it is publicly available and can be passed over the internet. Asymmetric key has a far better power in ensuring the security of information transmitted during communication.

Asymmetric encryption is mostly used in day-to-day communication channels, especially over the Internet. Popular asymmetric key encryption algorithm includes EIGamal, RSA, DSA, Elliptic curve techniques, PKCS.

Pros and Cons of Asymmetric Encryption


  • Asymmetric Encryption has two keys, one public and one private, so there’s no problem with distributing keys.
  • Again, with a pair of keys, it is not difficult to communicate with multiple parties and that’s how it is more scalable in large networks.


  • Performance: Asymmetric Encryption is slower in performance compared to Symmetric Encryption.
  • Hard to understand and execute: Asymmetric Encryption is not that easy to implement and manage due to its large key sizes.

Asymmetric Encryption in Digital Certificates

To use asymmetric encryption, there must be a way of discovering public keys. One typical technique is using digital certificates in a client-server model of communication. A certificate is a package of information that identifies a user and a server. It contains information such as an organization’s name, the organization that issued the certificate, the users’ email address and country, and users public key.

When a server and a client require a secure encrypted communication, they send a query over the network to the other party, which sends back a copy of the certificate. The other party’s public key can be extracted from the certificate. A certificate can also be used to uniquely identify the holder.

SSL/TLS uses both asymmetric and symmetric encryption, quickly look at digitally signed SSL certificates issued by trusted certificate authorities (CAs).

Difference Between Symmetric and Asymmetric Encryption

  • Symmetric encryption uses a single key that needs to be shared among the people who need to receive the message while asymmetric encryption uses a pair of public key and a private key to encrypt and decrypt messages when communicating.
  • Symmetric encryption is an old technique while asymmetric encryption is relatively new.
  • Asymmetric encryption was introduced to complement the inherent problem of the need to share the key in symmetric encryption model, eliminating the need to share the key by using a pair of public-private keys.
  • Asymmetric encryption takes relatively more time than the symmetric encryption.
Key Differences Symmetric Encryption Asymmetric Encryption
Size of cipher text Smaller cipher text compares to original plain text file. Larger cipher text compares to original plain text file.
Data size Used to transmit big data. Used to transmit small data.
Resource Utilization Symmetric key encryption works on low usage of resources. Asymmetric encryption requires high consumption of resources.
Key Lengths 128 or 256-bit key size. RSA 2048-bit or higher key size.
Security Less secured due to use a single key for encryption. Much safer as two keys are involved in encryption and decryption.
Number of keys Symmetric Encryption uses a single key for encryption and decryption. Asymmetric Encryption uses two keys for encryption and decryption
Techniques It is an old technique. It is a modern encryption technique.
Confidentiality A single key for encryption and decryption has chances of key compromised. Two keys separately made for encryption and decryption that removes the need to share a key.
Speed Symmetric encryption is fast technique Asymmetric encryption is slower in terms of speed.
Algorithms RC4, AES, DES, 3DES, and QUAD. RSA, Diffie-Hellman, ECC algorithms.


When it comes to encryption, the latest schemes may necessarily the best fit. You should always use the encryption algorithm that is right for the task at hand. In fact, as cryptography takes a new shift, new algorithms are being developed in a bid to catch up with the eavesdroppers and secure information to enhance confidentiality. Hackers are bound to make it tough for experts in the coming years, thus expect more from the cryptographic community!

About the Author

Nikita Gupta

Nikita Gupta is a seasoned professional with a master's degree in Computer Applications. She brings over 10 years of profound experience to the realm of technology. Her exceptional expertise spans software security, data security, and mastery in SSL/TLS. When it comes to cutting-edge solutions for securing digital assets, Nikita is a dedicated pro.