Elliptic curve cryptography is one of the newer algorithms discovered to be able to do asymmetric encryption; that is an algorithm in which text can be encrypted by with one key, and decrypted with another key where someone with one key would not be able to calculate the other.
There are several slightly different versions of ECC, all of which rely on the (widely believed) difficulty of solving the discrete logarithm problem for the group of an elliptic curve over some finite field. The most popular finite fields for this are the integers modulo a prime number (see modular arithmetic), or a Galois field of size a power of two. (Galois fields of size of power of some other prime have also been proposed but are considered a bit dubious.)
The actual methods used are adaptations of older discrete logarithm cryptosystems originally described for use on other groups. These include Diffie-Hellman, El Gamal discrete log cryptosystem and DSA.
Doing the group operations needed to run the system is slower for an ECC system than for a factorisation system or modulo integer discrete log system of the same size. Since the speed of all these systems is barely acceptable even on the computers of 2001, this is a major concern. However, proponents of ECC systems believe that they can get away with much smaller systems than the others, to the extent that ECC can actually be faster than, for instance, RSA. Published results to date tend to support this belief, but some experts are skeptical.
See the external links below for some current research into acceptable key lengths for various symmetric and asymmetric ciphers.
ECC is widely regarded as the strongest asymmetric algorithm at a given key length, so may become useful over links that have very tight bandwidth requirements.
- Selecting Cryptographic Key Sizes Arjen K. Lenstra, Eric R. Verheul, 1999
- Minimal Key Lengths for Symmetric Ciphers to Provide Adequate Commercial Security M. Blaze, W. Diffie, R. Rivest, B. Schneier, T. Shimomura, E. Thompson, and M. Weiner, 1996