Just like two Spartan generals sending messages to each other, computers using symmetric-key encryption to send information between each other must have the same key.
In symmetric-key encryption, each computer has a secret key (code) that it can use to encrypt a packet of information before it is sent over the network to another computer. Symmetric-key requires that you know which computers will be talking to each other so you can install the key on each one. Symmetric-key encryption is essentially the same as a secret code that each of the two computers must know in order to decode the information. The code provides the key to decoding the message.
Think of it like this: You create a coded message to send to a friend in which each letter is substituted with the letter that is two down from it in the alphabet. So "A" becomes "C," and "B" becomes "D". You have already told a trusted friend that the code is "Shift by 2". Your friend gets the message and decodes it. Anyone else who sees the message will see only nonsense.
The same goes for computers, but, of course, the keys are usually much longer. The first major symmetric algorithm developed for computers in the United States was the Data Encryption Standard (DES), approved for use in the 1970s. The DES uses a 56-bit key.
Because computers have become increasingly faster since the '70s, security experts no longer consider DES secure -- although a 56-bit key offers more than 70 quadrillion possible combinations (70,000,000,000,000,000), an attack of brute force (simply trying every possible combination in order to find the right key) could easily decipher encrypted data in a short while. DES has since been replaced by the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES), which uses 128-, 192- or 256-bit keys. Most people believe that AES will be a sufficient encryption standard for a long time coming: A 128-bit key, for instance, can have more than 300,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 key combinations [source: CES Communications].