As stated earlier, encryption is the process of taking all of the data that one computer is sending to another and encoding it into a form that only the other computer will be able to decode. Another process, authentication, is used to verify that the information comes from a trusted source. Basically, if information is "authentic," you know who created it and you know that it has not been altered in any way since that person created it. These two processes, encryption and authentication, work hand-in-hand to create a secure environment.
There are several ways to authenticate a person or information on a computer:
- Password - The use of a user name and password provides the most common form of authentication. You enter your name and password when prompted by the computer. It checks the pair against a secure file to confirm. If either the name or the password does not match, then you are not allowed further access.
- Pass cards - These cards can range from a simple card with a magnetic strip, similar to a credit card, to sophisticated smart cards that have an embedded computer chip.
- Digital signatures - A digital signature is basically a way to ensure that an electronic document (e-mail, spreadsheet, text file) is authentic. The Digital Signature Standard (DSS) is based on a type of public-key encryption method that uses the Digital Signature Algorithm (DSA). DSS is the format for digital signatures that has been endorsed by the U.S. government. The DSA algorithm consists of a private key, known only by the originator of the document (the signer), and a public key. The public key has four parts, which you can learn more about at this page. If anything at all is changed in the document after the digital signature is attached to it, it changes the value that the digital signature compares to, rendering the signature invalid.
Recently, more sophisticated forms of authentication have begun to show up on home and office computer systems. Most of these new systems use some form of biometrics for authentication. Biometrics uses biological information to verify identity. Biometric authentication methods include: