A Linear Feedback Shift Register (LFSR) is a mechanism for generating a sequence of binary bits. The register consists of a series of cells that are set by an initialization vector that is, most often, the secret key. The behavior of the register is regulated by a clock and at each clocking instant, the contents of the cells of the register are shifted right by one position, and the exclusive-or of a subset of the cell contents is placed in the leftmost cell. One bit of output is usually derived during this update procedure.

A shift register cascade is a set of LFSRs (see Question 89) connected together in such a way that the behavior of one particular LFSR depends on the behavior of the previous LFSRs in the cascade. This dependent behavior is usually achieved by using one LFSR to control the clock of the following LFSR. For instance one register might be advanced by one step if the preceding register output is 1 and advanced by two steps otherwise. Many different configurations are possible and certain parameter choices appear to offer very good security .

The shrinking generator was developed by Coppersmith, Krawczyk, and Mansour. It is a stream cipher based on the simple interaction between the outputs from two LFSRs. The bits of one output are used to determine whether the corresponding bits of the second output will be used as part of the overall keystream. The shrinking generator is simple and scaleable, and has good security properties. One drawback of the shrinking generator is that the output rate of the keystream will not be constant unless precautions are taken. A variant of the shrinking generator is the self-shrinking generator, where instead of using one output from one LFSR to "shrink" the output of another (as in the shrinking generator), the output of a single LFSR is used to extract bits from the same output. There are as yet no results on the cryptanalysis of either technique.

There are a vast number of alternative stream ciphers that have been proposed in cryptographic literature as well as an equally vast number that appear in implementations and products world-wide. Many are based on the use of LFSRs since such ciphers tend to be more amenable to analysis and it is easier to assess the security that they offer.

Rueppel suggests that there are essentially four distinct approaches to stream cipher design. The first is termed the information-theoretic approach as exemplified by Shannon's analysis of the one-time pad. The second approach is that of system-theoretic design. In essence, the cryptographer designs the cipher along established guidelines which ensure that the cipher is resistant to all known attacks. While there is, of course, no substantial guarantee that future cryptanalysis will be unsuccessful, it is this design approach that is perhaps the most common in cipher design. The third approach is to attempt to relate the difficulty of breaking the stream cipher (where "breaking" means being able to predict the unseen keystream with a success rate better than can be achieved by guessing) to solving some difficult problem. This complexity-theoretic approach is very appealing, but in practice the ciphers that have been developed tend to be rather slow and impractical. The final approach highlighted by Rueppel is that of designing a randomized cipher. Here the aim is to ensure that the cipher is resistant to any practical amount

A one-time pad, sometimes called the Vernam cipher, uses a string of bits that is generated completely at random. The keystream is the same length as the plaintext message and the random string is combined using bitwise exclusive-or with the plaintext to produce the ciphertext. Since the entire keystream is random, an opponent with infinite computational resources can only guess the plaintext if he sees the ciphertext. Such a cipher is said to offer perfect secrecy and the analysis of the one-time pad is seen as one of the cornerstones of modern cryptography.

While the one-time pad saw use during wartime, over diplomatic channels requiring exceptionally high security, the fact that the secret key (which can be used only once) is as long as the message introduces severe key-management problems. While perfectly secure, the one-time pad is impractical.