RSA (Rivest–Shamir–Adleman) is a public-key cryptosystem, one of the oldest, that is widely used for secure data transmission. The acronym “RSA” comes from the surnames of Ron Rivest, Adi Shamir and Leonard Adleman, who publicly described the algorithm in 1977. An equivalent system was developed secretly in 1973 at Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) (the British signals intelligence agency) by the English mathematician Clifford Cocks. That system was declassified in 1997.
In a public-key cryptosystem, the encryption key is public and distinct from the decryption key, which is kept secret (private). An RSA user creates and publishes a public key based on two large prime numbers, along with an auxiliary value. The prime numbers are kept secret. Messages can be encrypted by anyone, via the public key, but can only be decoded by someone who knows the prime numbers.
The security of RSA relies on the practical difficulty of factoring the product of two large prime numbers, the “factoring problem”. Breaking RSA encryption is known as the RSA problem. Whether it is as difficult as the factoring problem is an open question. There are no published methods to defeat the system if a large enough key is used.
RSA is a relatively slow algorithm. Because of this, it is not commonly used to directly encrypt user data. More often, RSA is used to transmit shared keys for symmetric-key cryptography, which are then used for bulk encryption–decryption.
The idea of an asymmetric public-private key cryptosystem is attributed to Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman, who published this concept in 1976. They also introduced digital signatures and attempted to apply number theory. Their formulation used a shared-secret-key created from exponentiation of some number, modulo a prime number. However, they left open the problem of realizing a one-way function, possibly because the difficulty of factoring was not well-studied at the time.
Ron Rivest, Adi Shamir, and Leonard Adleman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology made several attempts over the course of a year to create a one-way function that was hard to invert. Rivest and Shamir, as computer scientists, proposed many potential functions, while Adleman, as a mathematician, was responsible for finding their weaknesses. They tried many approaches, including “knapsack-based” and “permutation polynomials”. For a time, they thought what they wanted to achieve was impossible due to contradictory requirements. In April 1977, they spent Passover at the house of a student and drank a good deal of Manischewitz wine before returning to their homes at around midnight. Rivest, unable to sleep, lay on the couch with a math textbook and started thinking about their one-way function. He spent the rest of the night formalizing his idea, and he had much of the paper ready by daybreak. The algorithm is now known as RSA – the initials of their surnames in same order as their paper.
Clifford Cocks, an English mathematician working for the British intelligence agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), described an equivalent system in an internal document in 1973. However, given the relatively expensive computers needed to implement it at the time, it was considered to be mostly a curiosity and, as far as is publicly known, was never deployed. His discovery, however, was not revealed until 1997 due to its top-secret classification.
Kid-RSA (KRSA) is a simplified, insecure public-key cipher published in 1997, designed for educational purposes. Some people feel that learning Kid-RSA gives insight into RSA and other public-key ciphers, analogous to simplified DES.