Public key cryptography, or asymmetric cryptography, is any cryptographic system that uses pairs of keys: public keys which may be disseminated widely, and private keys which are known only to the owner. This accomplishes two functions: authentication, which is when the public key is used to verify that a holder of the paired private key sent the message, and encryption, whereby only the holder of the paired private key can decrypt the message encrypted with the public key.
In a public key encryption system, any person can encrypt a message using the public key of the receiver, but such a message can be decrypted only with the receiver's private key. For this to work it must be computationally easy for a user to generate a public and private key-pair to be used for encryption and decryption.
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