An encryption system in which the sender and receiver of a message share a single, common key that is used to encrypt and decrypt the message. Contrast this with public-key cryptology, which utilizes two keys - a public key to encrypt messages and a private key to decrypt them.
Symmetric-key systems are simpler and faster, but their main drawback is that the two parties must somehow exchange the key in a secure way. Public-key encryption avoids this problem because the public key can be distributed in a non-secure way, and the private key is never transmitted.
Symmetric-key cryptography is sometimes called secret-key cryptography. The most popular symmetric-key system is the Data Encryption Standard (DES).