Certificate authority

In cryptography, a certificate authority or certification authority (CA) is an entity that issues digital certificates. A digital certificate certifies the ownership of a public key by the named subject of the certificate. This allows others (relying parties) to rely upon signatures or on assertions made about the private key that corresponds to the certified public key. A CA acts as a trusted third party—trusted both by the subject (owner) of the certificate and by the party relying upon the certificate. The format of these certificates is specified by the X.509 standard.

One particularly common use for certificate authorities is to sign certificates used in HTTPS, the secure browsing protocol for the World Wide Web. Another common use is in issuing identity cards by national governments for use in electronically signing documents.

Overview

Trusted certificates can be used to create secure connections to a server via the Internet. A certificate is essential in order to circumvent a malicious party which happens to be on the route to a target server which acts as if it were the target. Such a scenario is commonly referred to as a man-in-the-middle attack. The client uses the CA certificate to authenticate the CA signature on the server certificate, as part of the authorizations before launching a secure connection. Usually, client software—for example, browsers—include a set of trusted CA certificates. This makes sense, as many users need to trust their client software. A malicious or compromised client can skip any security check and still fool its users into believing otherwise.

The clients of a CA are server supervisors who call for a certificate that their servers will bestow to users. Commercial CAs charge to issue certificates, and their customers anticipate the CA's certificate to be contained within the majority of web browsers, so that safe connections to the certified servers work efficiently out-of-the-box. The quantity of internet browsers, other devices and applications which trust a particular certificate authority is referred to as ubiquity. Mozilla, which is a non-profit business, issues several commercial CA certificates with its products.[1] While Mozilla developed their own policy, the CA/Browser Forum developed similar guidelines for CA trust. A single CA certificate may be shared among multiple CAs or their resellers. A root CA certificate may be the base to issue multiple intermediate CA certificates with varying validation requirements.

In addition to commercial CAs, some non-profits issue digital certificates to the public without charge; notable examples are CAcert and Let's Encrypt.

Large organizations or government bodies may have their own PKIs (public key infrastructure), each containing their own CAs. Any site using self-signed certificates acts as its own CA.

Browsers and other clients of sorts characteristically allow users to add or do away with CA certificates at will. While server certificates regularly last for a relatively short period, CA certificates are further extended,[2] so, for repeatedly visited servers, it is less error-prone importing and trusting the CA issued, rather than confirm a security exemption each time the server's certificate is renewed.

Less often, trustworthy certificates are used for encrypting or signing messages. CAs dispense end-user certificates too, which can be used with S/MIME. However, encryption entails the receiver's public key and, since authors and receivers of encrypted messages, apparently, know one another, the usefulness of a trusted third party remains confined to the signature verification of messages sent to public mailing lists.

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