Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) Basics: The Foundation of Digital Security

Public Key Infrastructure

Table of Contents

What Is Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) Certificate

PKI (Public Key Infrastructure) is an encryption and cybersecurity system that safeguards communications between the server (your website) and the client (the users). Consider all the information, people, and services with which your team communicates and collaborates. PKI (Public Key Infrastructure) is crucial in establishing digital trust. PKI is critical in establishing a trusted and secure business environment since it allows for the verification and exchange of data across multiple servers and users.

PKI is based on digital certificates that validate the identification of machines and/or users, proving the transaction’s integrity through encryption and decryption. As machines increase drastically in today’s digital world, our information must be trusted and secure against cyber-attacks.

What are the Components of Public Key Infrastructure (PKI)

1. Certificate Authority

A certificate authority is a company that creates digital certificates, signs them with its public key, and maintains them for future use. A trusted party serves as the foundation for all PKI certificates and offers services that can be used to authenticate the identity. Certificates are issued and held accountable in the same way as a driver’s license is. As a result, Certificate Authorities ensure that the parties are recognized in a PKI certificate, providing businesses with a digital certificate that allows them to trust the devices.

Key Functions of Certificate Authority

The key functions of a certificate authority are as follows −

  • Generating key pairs − The CA can generate a key pair individually or in conjunction with the client.
  • Issuing digital certificates − The CA might be considered the PKI counterpart of a passport agency; after the customer gives the credentials to establish his identity, the CA issues a certificate. The CA then signs the certificate to prevent tampering with the certificate’s details.
  • Publishing Certificates − The CA must publish certificates for users to locate them. There are two ways to accomplish this. One option is to publish certifications in an electronic telephone directory. The other option is to mail your certificate to everyone you believe may require it.
  • Verifying Certificates − The CA makes its public key available in the environment to check the signature on digital certificates given to customers.
  • Revocation of Certificates − CAs revoked certificates for various reasons, such as user compromise of the private key or lack of trust in the client. After revoking a certificate, the CA lists all revoked certificates still in use.

2. Digital Certificate

A digital certificate is a basic building block of public key infrastructure. It acts as a website’s and organization’s digital identity. The connection is protected with the aid of PKI while two machines communicate with each other since it employs digital certificates to authenticate the identity. Devices can obtain certificates for commercial sites from third-party organizations known as Certificate Authorities. Certificate authorities are licensed organizations that provide digital certificates to businesses worldwide.

3. Registration Authority

A registration authority is a body that verifies the identities of persons who obtain digital certificates. A CA can operate as its registration authority or enlist the help of a third party. Both entities keep all the permitted certificates that are either requested, received, or revoked by them. All certificates are kept in a secure certificate database. As part of the startup process, RA is frequently configured to validate an individual’s identity, such as by validating physical presence and other identifications. It aids in producing identification materials such as keys for end users.

4. Certificate Database

A certificate database that holds both certificates and metadata about them, most notably the certificate’s validity period.

5. Certificate Policy

A certificate policy that outlines the PKI’s procedures and allows outsiders to assess the PKI’s trustworthiness.

Popular Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) Algorithms

1. AES 256 Certificate:

The AES 256 certificate is the current encryption standard and technique. AES 128 was the previous standard. AES 256 keeps track of flaws, and a higher level of encryption is used when the encryption is compromised. The better the cryptic the public/private key pair, the higher the standard encryption. An AES 256 certificate has a longer key length, making brute-force assaults by credential thieves very unfeasible.

2. Diffie Hellman

Diffie Hellman, also known as exponential key exchange, is an encryption technology that utilizes numbers raised to certain powers to generate decryption keys based on never directly communicated components, making potential threats difficult to penetrate. The algorithm generates a mathematically complex encryption shared between two parties via secret communication to exchange a private encryption key across a public network.

3. RSA Key Exchange

RSA, named for its inventors Ron Rivest, Adi Shamir, and Leonard Adleman, factors huge integers that are the product of two large prime numbers, similar to the Diffie Hellman method. The RSA key exchange protocol includes public and private keys; while the public key can be exchanged with anybody, the private key must be kept private. In RSA cryptography, however, the public or private key can encrypt a message while the other can decrypt it.

What Are the Types of PKI Certificates

1. SSL/TLS Certificates

SSL/TLS certificates protect internet data and validate the legitimacy of a website. SSL certificates utilize asymmetric encryption, which involves using public and private keys to ensure communications security.

An SSL certificate is a data file stored on a website’s server. A website’s SSL certificate is required to safeguard user data, verify ownership, and prevent attackers from impersonating the site and gaining user trust. HTTPS addresses utilize SSL certificates, which encrypt the TCP layer using the SSL encryption layer.

SSL certificates provide the public-private key pairing required for SSL/TLS encryption. When a client, typically a browser or a device, seeks to establish a TLS connection with a server, the SSL certificate is used to retrieve the public key and identity of the server.

SSL certificates also ensure that a client is communicating with the correct server that owns the domain. This check ensures that the domain is real and stops domain spoofing, man-in-the-middle attacks, and other bad things that trick users into thinking they can trust them.

2. Code-Signing Certificates

Code-signing certificates protect the integrity of code used in the development of software applications. Code signing verifies the identity of the software author and ensures that the signed code has not been updated or tampered with after it has been signed. Given the complexity of today’s modern software supply chains, these tasks are essential for creating trustworthiness and preventing supply chain breaches.

Code-signing, like SSL certificates, is based on combining public and private keys. The developer signs the code with its private key, and the end-user verifies their identity with the developer’s public key. In addition, code signing ensures that the software or application is from a reliable source, removing any “unknown publisher” alerts.

Furthermore, code-signing certificates confirm the application’s integrity, and the code has not been updated. If the application is updated after it has been digitally signed, the signature will appear illegitimate, and users will lose trust in it.

A timestamp is added to a piece of code when it is digitally signed. Timestamping ensures that the signed code is valid after the expired digital certificate. The developer must only apply for a fresh digital certificate once the code is changed.

3. User/Client Certificates

User or client certificates authenticate people or devices requesting access to critical business data or services, whereas SSL certificates validate site domains. User certificates work like passwords, but they are much more secure and don’t require you to remember long, complicated passwords.

Client certificates, like server SSL certificates, are authenticated via Public Key Infrastructure (PKI). Client certificates, unlike server certificates, are solely used to validate a person’s or device’s identity; they are not used to encrypt data. User-client certificates ensure only authorized users can access services and/or data.

While client certificates are less well-known than server SSL certificates, they are gaining traction in the commercial world. Organizations shifting data and programs to the cloud must find a mechanism to confirm people’s legitimacy via remote access.

Passwords and other traditional authentication procedures are no longer adequate. Attackers are particularly interested in collecting or compromising weak passwords. The most common attack vector is stolen credentials, and passwords are viewed as a weakness rather than an authentication mechanism.

Client certificates come in handy in this situation. Client certificates authenticate users through their technologies rather than through insecure passwords. Client SSL certificates are put on the devices used by users to connect to a certain site or service. If the user lacks the necessary rights, they will be denied access.

In two-factor authentication (2FA) protocols, client certificates are also employed. They are the “something you have” aspect of the process, increasing the security of connections to sensitive data or services. While 2FA is not a panacea for all authentication issues, it does add another layer of complication for attackers, who typically seek the most straightforward approach to accessing corporate networks.

Client certificates are great for increasing the user experience and strengthening individual authentication.

Data security balances keeping information safe and making it easy for users. Client certificates eliminate the need for users to do anything and the hassle of typing in hard-to-remember passwords.

Client certificates are a big bonus for developing a strong security posture, especially since user discomfort is frequently highlighted as a barrier to effective security policies. This is especially true in zero-trust security schemes, where robust identity authentication establishes trust with remote users and staff.

4. Email Certificate or S/MIME Certificate

Email certificates, or S/MIME certificates, protect email communication by encrypting messages before they leave your email client. This ensures the email’s confidentiality and authenticity, verifies the sender’s identity, and prevents unauthorized access. In a nutshell, it increases email security by enabling digital signing and encryption.

5. Self-Signed Certificate

While self-signed certificates are simple and inexpensive, they have yet to be validated by a Certificate Authority (CA). These certificates lack some security measures found in certificates signed by a CA. As a result, visitors may see a warning if a website owner utilizes a self-signed certificate for HTTPS services.
Ignoring these warnings may risk users’ traffic being blocked by a third party utilizing the self-signed certificate. These warnings do not appear when browsing websites with CA-signed certificates.

6. Qualified Certificate

A qualified certificate is a PKI certificate provided by a recognized service provider that certifies the authenticity and integrity of an electronic signature and the related data or message. The European Union standard eIDAS defines multiple levels of electronic signatures that can be used for both public and private transactions within and outside of the EU. A qualified digital certificate is necessary to raise an electronic signature to a qualified electronic signature.

7. EMV Certificate

EMV accreditation ensures that retailers can accept payments made using chip-enabled cards, protecting in-person transactions. This certification allows card issuers to ensure they are dealing with a genuine card rather than a counterfeit.
As a result, they can accept any risks related to EMV-compliant transaction processing. These certificates, known as EMS CA certificates, are used to authenticate the card issuer’s certificate on POS terminals or ATMs.

What are Types Of Open-Source PKI

The following are some examples of open-source PKI:

EJBCA Enterprise: It is a Java-based, enterprise-grade, and fully complete CA implementation that can be set up as a service or for internal use.

OpenSSL: It is a full-featured commercial-grade toolkit in all major Linux distributions and written in C. It can enable PKI applications and be used to create a basic CA.

CFSSL: is a full-featured commercial-grade toolkit developed in C that is included in all major Linux distributions. It can be used to allow PKI applications and to set up a basic CA.

XiPKI: This is a high-performance and highly scalable CA and OCSP responder written in Java and supported by SHA-3.

Dogtag Certificate System: This is a full-featured enterprise-class CA that supports all areas of certificate lifecycle management.

How To Get A PKI Certificate

To know how that works, take the most widely used public key infrastructure system: the TLS/SSL protocol, which secures nearly all encrypted HTTP transmission.

A website owner must get a certificate from a certificate authority to offer TLS-encrypted communication.

Numerous vendors have established themselves as CAs, and before they issue one to you, they want you to verify your ownership of your website in some way. For example, suppose you’re attempting to purchase an SSL certificate for a website at xyz.com. In that case, you may need to email the CA from [email protected], an address restricted to someone with administrative control over that domain name. You can upload the certificate to your web server once it is obtained.

An SSL certificate is most likely the most frequent type of PKI certificate encountered in the wild. However, the key thing to remember is that any PKI system must have some techniques for CAs to authenticate users and that all PKI system participants trust that technique. SSL/TLS leverages a chain of trust in which users must finally choose to trust a root certificate-granting authority.

How Does A Browser Know A PKI Certificate Has Expired?

A certificate’s validity period is when the signing Certificate Authority (CA) guarantees to maintain information about the certificate’s status. Browsers will not trust certificates that have expired or will not be valid when the browser checks the certificate’s validity.

Certificates are expected to be used for their entire validity period, but sometimes circumstances require a certificate to be revoked before it naturally expires. These circumstances may include a change in the subject’s name or a potential compromise of their private key.

In these cases, the issuing certificate authority (CA) is responsible for revoking the certificate and informing browsers of its revocation status. This is typically done through the use of revocation lists, as recommended by RFC 5280.

Certificates are usually tied to two entities: the issuer, which is the entity that has the signing key, and the subject, which is the owner whose public key the certificate checks.

For added security, most PKI implementations verify that the issuer field of a certificate matches the subject field of the previous certificate in the path and that the issuer’s key is the same as the key that signed the current certificate. Browsers also perform this check to ensure the validity of the certificate.

If a browser follows a path to its final certificate without encountering any errors, the path is considered valid, and a secure connection can be established. However, if errors are encountered during the process, the path is deemed invalid, and a secure connection cannot be established.

How To Recover PKI Certificate?

When users lose their decryption keys, a business must be able to recover encrypted data. This means the user’s organization requires a mechanism for backing up and retrieving the decryption keys. Key backup and recovery are critical for businesses for two reasons.

The issue is that users need to remember their passwords. Users who forget the passwords required to access their decryption keys can be disastrous for a business. If there were no method to recover those keys securely, vital information would be lost forever.

Suppose users know that they can always get back their encrypted information. In that case, some may not encrypt their most important and sensitive data because they are worried about losing it, even though this information requires the most protection. The second concern is that users may misplace, break, or corrupt the devices that contain their decryption keys.

For example, if a user stores their decryption keys on a magnetic card, the magnetic field on the card can become damaged. So again, losing those decryption keys permanently might be terrible.

Users can only recover encrypted data if their decryption keys are backed up.

What Type of Encryption PKI Use

PKI utilizes symmetric and asymmetric encryption to keep all of its assets secure.

1. Symmetrical Encryption

Symmetrical encryption safeguards the single private key generated during the initial exchange of information between parties—the digital handshake, if you will. This secret key must be handed from one party to the next for all parties to encrypt and decrypt the information exchanged. This secret key could be a password, a set of random numbers, or letters made by a random number generator (RNG).

2. Asymmetric Encryption

Asymmetric encryption, commonly known as “public key cryptography,”. Asymmetric encryption involves using two keys, one public and one private. It enables you to generate a public key for the party reporting to you, allowing them to encrypt their incoming data, which you can then decrypt with a private key.

Key escrow on the other hand  is a process where a trusted third party holds a copy of a user’s private key in case the user loses it or cannot access it. The third party could be a government agency, a company, or any other authorized organization to hold the keys.

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