What Are Private Keys

Learn and understanding what private keys are and how to keep them safe is essential to safely use cryptocurrency.

We recommend using Bitcoin Core for network consensus and Armory to manage private keys.

You can also learn how to export and import private keys.

By now you have most probably heard of the terms public and private keys. But what exactly are they and well, more to the point, what do they actually do.

Well, to put it simply, they are sophisticated form of cryptography and one of the most important aspects of cryptocurrency in terms of user security. Whilst they are described as being keys, they actually tend to look a lot more like this.

In essence, these keys allow wallet to both send and receive transactions. We can imagine a public key as being the location of a postbox. Anyone can put letters into that postbox but they cannot get them back out. Instead, the postman who owns the private key has to come along and open the postbox in order to retrieve the letters.

This is similar to how a Litecoin address works. The public key is usually shown in the form of a Litecoin address which is a random assortment of upper and lower case letters along with numbers from anywhere between 30 and 34 characters in length and starting with the letter L.

Now, you or I can send Litecoins to this address but we cannot retrieve them just like we can’t take letters out of the postbox without the key. Only the owner of this address who has the corresponding private key is allowed to take the money out and spend it.

So just note that if at any point you or in this case the postman here shares his private keys with anyone, the coins in this metaphorical postbox risk being stolen. In fact, this very thing happened live on television to Bloomberg's Matt Miller, when he accidentally showed off his private key from a paper wallet. Within seconds, somebody watching took the coins out of his wallet and into their own. Luckily, for Matt however, they did offer to return them to a new address. What a guy!

Okay. So someone can steal a private key. How do I keep mine secure then or fear not as Matt was using a paper wallet which actually has a private key printed directly on to it. And while paper wallets are great, flashing them about in public isn't such a good idea just like you shouldn't be flashing your real world wallet around in public. Please don't do that.

If however you use a hardware wallet and you have it passphrase protected so these are wallets which are on your computer, phone or whatever device you prefer to use, then it can prove incredibly difficult for intruders to gain access to private keys as they need both physical access to the device and your passphrase.

Okay, so this is all well and good but what's stopping you from just guessing a private key like we could a password if it's just numbers and letters. Well, private keys are generated alongside the public key when you set up a wallet for the first time. So each is wholly unique and no one has ever seen or generated that public or private key before. You are the first person.

Private keys are 51 characters in length and made up of random assortment of upper and lower case letters along with numbers. What this means is that anyone attempting to break into a wallet by guessing the private key would spend roughly 204 tresvigintillion years trying to crack it. Oh! And by the way a Tresvigintillion, that's 10 to the power 72 and it's 204 for those.

So thanks to all this cleaver technology and mathematics behind cryptocurrency it makes it extremely secure for all of its users. So that was public and private keys explained. If you have any questions or suggestions of what you would like to see us cover next, please do not hesitate to leave a comment and if you want to get involved you can find us over at litecointalk.com and Reddit @r/litecoin. So drop by and say hello. Until next time, farewell.

Written by Trace Mayer on October 10, 2016.