A cypher (or cipher) is an algorithm for performing encryption (coding) or decryption (decoding). It is a series of well-defined steps that can be followed as a procedure. To encipher or encode is to convert information from plain text into cypher or code. In non-technical usage, a 'cypher' is the same thing as a 'code'; but in cryptography, cyphers are distinguished from codes.
One source gives this explanation: a cipher is "a method in which the basic unit of concealment is the letter. In comparison, a code is a form of concealment in which the basic unit is the word".
Codes operated by substituting according to a large codebook which linked a random string of characters or numbers to a word or phrase. For example, "UQJHSE" could be the code for "Proceed to the following coordinates".
A cypher is used to turn the original information ("plaintext") to the encrypted form "cyphertext". The cyphertext message contains all the information of the plaintext message, but cannot be read by human or computer without the proper mechanism to decrypt it. To encypher or decypher, you need the "key". In encryption, a key specifies the particular transformation of plaintext into ciphertext, or vice versa during decryption.
By type of key used ciphers are divided into:
- symmetric key algorithms (private-key cryptography): the same key is used for encryption and decryption, and
- asymmetric key algorithms (public-key cryptography): two different keys are used for encryption and decryption.
The word cypher in French is cifre and Latin cifra, from the Arabic sifr, meaning 'zero'.