Public Key Encryption

Imagine Alice wants something valuable shipped to her. Because it’s valuable, she wants to make sure it arrives securely (i.e. hasn’t been opened or tampered with) and that it’s not a forgery (i.e. it’s actually from the sender she’s expecting it to be from and nobody’s pulling the old switcheroo).

One way she can do this is by providing the sender (let’s call him Bob) with a high-security box of her choosing. She provides Bob with this box, and something else: a padlock, but a padlock without a key. Alice is keeping that key all to herself. Bob can put items in the box then put the padlock onto it. But once the padlock snaps shut, the box cannot be opened by anyone who doesn’t have Alice’s private key.

Here’s the twist though: Bob also puts a padlock onto the box. This padlock uses a key Bob has published to the world, such that if you have one of Bob’s keys, you know a box came from him because Bob’s keys will open Bob’s padlocks (let’s imagine a world where padlocks cannot be forged even if you know the key). Bob then sends the box to Alice.

In order for Alice to open the box, she needs two keys: her private key that opens her own padlock, and Bob’s well-known key. If Bob’s key doesn’t open the second padlock, then Alice knows that this is not the box she was expecting from Bob, it’s a forgery.

This bidirectional guarantee around identity is known as mutual authentication.



The Box class uses the given public and private (secret) keys to derive a shared key, which is used with the nonce given to encrypt the given messages and to decrypt the given ciphertexts. The same shared key will be generated from both pairing of keys, so given two keypairs belonging to Alice (pkalice, skalice) and Bob (pkbob, skbob), the key derived from (pkalice, skbob) will equal that from (pkbob, skalice).

This is how the system works:

import nacl.utils
from nacl.public import PrivateKey, Box

# Generate Bob's private key, which must be kept secret
skbob = PrivateKey.generate()

# Bob's public key can be given to anyone wishing to send
#   Bob an encrypted message
pkbob = skbob.public_key

# Alice does the same and then Alice and Bob exchange public keys
skalice = PrivateKey.generate()
pkalice = skalice.public_key

# Bob wishes to send Alice an encrypted message so Bob must make a Box with
#   his private key and Alice's public key
bob_box = Box(skbob, pkalice)

# This is our message to send, it must be a bytestring as Box will treat it
#   as just a binary blob of data.
message = b"Kill all humans"

PyNaCl can automatically generate a random nonce for us, making the encryption very simple:

# Encrypt our message, it will be exactly 40 bytes longer than the
#   original message as it stores authentication information and the
#   nonce alongside it.
encrypted = bob_box.encrypt(message)

However, if we need to use an explicit nonce, it can be passed along with the message:

# This is a nonce, it *MUST* only be used once, but it is not considered
#   secret and can be transmitted or stored alongside the ciphertext. A
#   good source of nonces are just sequences of 24 random bytes.
nonce = nacl.utils.random(Box.NONCE_SIZE)

encrypted = bob_box.encrypt(message, nonce)

Finally, the message is decrypted (regardless of how the nonce was generated):

# Alice creates a second box with her private key to decrypt the message
alice_box = Box(skalice, pkbob)

# Decrypt our message, an exception will be raised if the encryption was
#   tampered with or there was otherwise an error.
plaintext = alice_box.decrypt(encrypted)


The SealedBox class encrypts messages addressed to a specified key-pair by using ephemeral sender’s keypairs, which will be discarded just after encrypting a single plaintext message.

This kind of construction allows sending messages, which only the recipient can decrypt without providing any kind of cryptographic proof of sender’s authorship.


By design, the recipient will have no means to trace the ciphertext to a known author, since the sending keypair itself is not bound to any sender’s identity, and the sender herself will not be able to decrypt the ciphertext she just created, since the private part of the key cannot be recovered after use.

This is how the system works:

import nacl.utils
from nacl.public import PrivateKey, SealedBox

# Generate Bob's private key, as we've done in the Box example
skbob = PrivateKey.generate()
pkbob = skbob.public_key

# Alice wishes to send a encrypted message to Bob,
# but prefers the message to be untraceable
sealed_box = SealedBox(pkbob)

# This is Alice's message
message = b"Kill all kittens"

# Encrypt the message, it will carry the ephemeral key public part
# to let Bob decrypt it
encrypted = sealed_box.encrypt(message)

Now, Bob wants to read the secret message he just received; therefore he must create a SealedBox using his own private key:

unseal_box = SealedBox(skbob)
# decrypt the received message
plaintext = unseal_box.decrypt(encrypted)


class nacl.public.PublicKey(public_key, encoder)

The public key counterpart to an Curve25519 PrivateKey for encrypting messages.

  • public_key (bytes) – Encoded Curve25519 public key.
  • encoder – A class that is able to decode the public_key.
class nacl.public.PrivateKey(private_key, encoder)

Private key for decrypting messages using the Curve25519 algorithm.


This must be protected and remain secret. Anyone who knows the value of your PrivateKey can decrypt any message encrypted by the corresponding PublicKey

  • private_key (bytes) – The private key used to decrypt messages.
  • encoder – A class that is able to decode the private_key.

An instance of PublicKey that corresponds with the private key.

classmethod generate()

Generates a random PrivateKey object

Returns:An instance of PrivateKey.
class nacl.public.Box(private_key, public_key)

The Box class boxes and unboxes messages between a pair of keys

The ciphertexts generated by Box include a 16 byte authenticator which is checked as part of the decryption. An invalid authenticator will cause the decrypt function to raise an exception. The authenticator is not a signature. Once you’ve decrypted the message you’ve demonstrated the ability to create arbitrary valid message, so messages you send are repudiable. For non-repudiable messages, sign them after encryption.

  • private_key – An instance of PrivateKey used to encrypt and decrypt messages
  • public_key – An instance of PublicKey used to encrypt and decrypt messages
classmethod decode(encoded, encoder)

Decodes a serialized Box.

Returns:An instance of Box.
encrypt(plaintext, nonce, encoder)

Encrypts the plaintext message using the given nonce (or generates one randomly if omitted) and returns the ciphertext encoded with the encoder.


It is VITALLY important that the nonce is a nonce, i.e. it is a number used only once for any given key. If you fail to do this, you compromise the privacy of the messages encrypted.

  • plaintext (bytes) – The plaintext message to encrypt.
  • nonce (bytes) – The nonce to use in the encryption.
  • encoder – A class that is able to decode the ciphertext.

An instance of EncryptedMessage.

decrypt(ciphertext, nonce, encoder)

Decrypts the ciphertext using the nonce (explicitly, when passed as a parameter or implicitly, when omitted, as part of the ciphertext) and returns the plaintext message.

  • ciphertext (bytes) – The encrypted message to decrypt.
  • nonce (bytes) – The nonce to use in the decryption.
  • encoder – A class that is able to decode the plaintext.
Return bytes:

The decrypted plaintext.


Returns the Curve25519 shared secret, that can then be used as a key in other symmetric ciphers.


It is VITALLY important that you use a nonce with your symmetric cipher. If you fail to do this, you compromise the privacy of the messages encrypted. Ensure that the key length of your cipher is 32 bytes.

Return bytes:The shared secret.
class nacl.public.SealedBox(receiver_key)

The SealedBox class can box and unbox messages sent to a receiver key using an ephemeral sending keypair.

encrypt(plaintext, encoder)

Encrypt the message using a Box constructed from an ephemeral key-pair and the receiver key.

The public part of the ephemeral key-pair will be enclosed in the returned ciphertext.

The private part of the ephemeral key-pair will be scrubbed before returning the ciphertext, therefore, the sender will not be able to decrypt the message.

  • plaintext (bytes) – The plaintext message to encrypt.
  • encoder – A class that is able to decode the ciphertext.
Return bytes:

The public part of the ephemeral keypair, followed by the encrypted ciphertext

decrypt(ciphertext, encoder)

Decrypt the message using a Box constructed from the receiver key and the ephemeral key enclosed in the ciphertext.

  • ciphertext (bytes) – The ciphertext message to decrypt.
  • encoder – A class that is able to decode the ciphertext.
Return bytes:

The decrypted message