Public-key cryptography is a cryptographic approach, employed by many cryptographic algorithms and cryptosystems, whose distinguishing characteristic is the use of asymmetric key algorithms instead of or in addition to symmetric key algorithms. Using the techniques of public key-private key cryptography, many methods of protecting communications or authenticating messages formerly unknown have become practical. They do not require a secure initial exchange of one or more secret keys as is required when using symmetric key algorithms. It can also be used to create digital signatures.^{[21]}

Public key cryptography is a fundamental and widely used technology around the world, and is the approach which underlies such Internet standards as Transport Layer Security (TLS) (successor to SSL), PGP and GPG.^{[22]}

The distinguishing technique used in public key cryptography is the use of asymmetric key algorithms, where the key used to encrypt a message is not the same as the key used to decrypt it. Each user has a pair of cryptographic keys — a public key and a private key. The private key is kept secret, whilst the public key may be widely distributed. Messages are encrypted with the recipient's public key and can only be decrypted with the corresponding private key. The keys are related mathematically, but the private key cannot be feasibly (ie, in actual or projected practice) derived from the public key. It was the discovery of such algorithms which revolutionized the practice of cryptography beginning in the middle 1970s.^{[23]}

In contrast, Symmetric-key algorithms, variations of which have been used for some thousands of years, use a single secret key shared by sender and receiver (which must also be kept private, thus accounting for the ambiguity of the common terminology) for both encryption and decryption. To use a symmetric encryption scheme, the sender and receiver must securely share a key in advance.^{[24]}

Because symmetric key algorithms are nearly always much less computationally intensive, it is common to exchange a key using a key-exchange algorithm and transmit data using that key and a symmetric key algorithm. PGP, and the SSL/TLS family of schemes do this, for instance, and are called hybrid cryptosystems in consequence.^{[25]}

Diffie–Hellman key exchange (D–H) is a cryptographic protocol that allows two parties that have no prior knowledge of each other to jointly establish a shared secret key over an insecure communications channel. This key can then be used to encrypt subsequent communications using a symmetric key cipher.^{[26]}

The scheme was first published by Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman in 1976, although it later emerged that it had been separately invented a few years earlier within GCHQ, the British signals intelligence agency, by Malcolm J. Williamson but was kept classified. In 2002, Hellman suggested the algorithm be called Diffie–Hellman–Merkle key exchange in recognition of Ralph Merkle's contribution to the invention of public-key cryptography (Hellman, 2002).^{[27]}

Although Diffie–Hellman key agreement itself is an anonymous (non-authenticated) key-agreement protocol, it provides the basis for a variety of authenticated protocols, and is used to provide perfect forward secrecy in Transport Layer Security's ephemeral modes (referred to as EDH or DHE depending on the cipher suite).^{[28]}

U.S. Patent 4,200,770, now expired, describes the algorithm and credits Hellman, Diffie, and Merkle as inventors.^{[29]}