Secure Electronic Transactions (SET)
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06-01-2011, 09:26 AM


A protocol designed to ensure the security and integrity of online communications and purchases, Secure Electronic Transaction (SET) uses digital certificates, issued to merchants and other businesses and customers, to perform a series of security checks verifying that the identity of a customer or sender of information is valid. SET provides the basic framework within which many of the various components of securing digital transactions function. Digital certificates, digital signatures, and digital wallets all function according to the SET protocol.

Secure Electronic Transactions (SET) relies on the science of cryptography – the art of encoding and decoding messages. Cryptography dates back many centuries – even in the time of Julius Caesar, encryption was used to preserve the secrecy of messages. Preserving the secrecy of transactions is no different, though stronger encryption algorithms are used, as well as significantly stronger encryption keys. Encryption advancements have come about through its application by the military, and by advances in computing power and mathematics.
The SET protocol relies on two different encryption mechanisms, as well as an authentication mechanism. SET uses symmetric encryption, in the form of the aging Data Encryption Standard (DES), as well as asymmetric, or public-key, encryption to transmit session keys for DES transactions (IBM, 1998). Rather than offer the security and protection afforded by public-key cryptography, SET simply uses session keys (56 bits) which are transmitted asymmetrically – the remainder of the transaction uses symmetric encryption in the form of DES. This has disturbing connotations for a "secure" electronic transaction protocol – because public key cryptography is only used only to encrypt DES keys and for authentication, and not for the main body of the transaction. The computational cost of asymmetric encryption is cited as reason for using weak 56 bit DES (IBM, 1998), however other reasons such as export/import restrictions, and the perceived need by law enforcement and government agencies to access the plain-text of encrypted SET messages may also play a role.

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