Describes how Cryptonote achieves untraceable payments.
The ordinary digital signature (e.g. (EC)DSA, Schnorr, etc...) verification process involves the public key of the signer. It is a necessary condition, because the signature actually proves that the author possesses the corresponding secret key. But it is not always a sufficient condition.
Ring signature is a more sophisticated scheme, which in fact may demand several different public keys for verification. In the case of ring signature, we have a group of individuals, each with their own secret and public key. The statement proved by ring signatures is that the signer of a given message is a member of the group. The main distinction with the ordinary digital signature schemes is that the signer needs a single secret key, but a verifier cannot establish the exact identity of the signer. Therefore, if you encounter a ring signature with the public keys of Alice, Bob and Carol, you can only claim that one of these individuals was the signer but you will not be able to pinpoint him or her.
This concept can be used to make digital transactions sent to the network untraceable by using the public keys of other members in the ring signature one will apply to the transaction. This approach proves that the creator of the transaction is eligible to spend the amount specified in the transaction but his identity will be indistinguishable from the users whose public keys he used in his ring signatures.
It should be noted that foreign transactions do not restrict you from spending your own money. Your public key may appear in dozens of others’ ring signatures but only as a muddling factor (even if you already used the corresponding secret key for signing your own transaction). Moreover, if two users create ring signatures with the same set of public keys, the signatures will be different (unless they use the same private key).