Public key infrastructure

Diagram of a public key infrastructure

A public key infrastructure (PKI) is a set of roles, policies, and procedures needed to create, manage, distribute, use, store, and revoke digital certificates and manage public-key encryption. The purpose of a PKI is to facilitate the secure electronic transfer of information for a range of network activities such as e-commerce, internet banking and confidential email. It is required for activities where simple passwords are an inadequate authentication method and more rigorous proof is required to confirm the identity of the parties involved in the communication and to validate the information being transferred. [1]

In cryptography, a PKI is an arrangement that binds public keys with respective identities of entities (like people and organizations). The binding is established through a process of registration and issuance of certificates at and by a certificate authority (CA). Depending on the assurance level of the binding, this may be carried out by an automated process or under human supervision.

The PKI role that assures valid and correct registration is called a registration authority (RA). An RA is responsible for accepting requests for digital certificates and authenticating the entity making the request. [2] In a Microsoft PKI, a registration authority is usually called a subordinate CA. [3]

An entity must be uniquely identifiable within each CA domain on the basis of information about that entity. A third-party validation authority (VA) can provide this entity information on behalf of the CA.

Design

Public key cryptography is a cryptographic technique that enables entities to securely communicate on an insecure public network, and reliably verify the identity of an entity via digital signatures. [4]

A public key infrastructure (PKI) is a system for the creation, storage, and distribution of digital certificates which are used to verify that a particular public key belongs to a certain entity. The PKI creates digital certificates which map public keys to entities, securely stores these certificates in a central repository and revokes them if needed. [5] [6] [7]

A PKI consists of: [6] [8] [9]

  • A certificate authority (CA) that stores, issues and signs the digital certificates
  • A registration authority which verifies the identity of entities requesting their digital certificates to be stored at the CA
  • A central directory—i.e., a secure location in which to store and index keys
  • A certificate management system managing things like the access to stored certificates or the delivery of the certificates to be issued.
  • A certificate policy stating the PKI's requirements concerning its procedures. Its purpose is to allow outsiders to analyze the PKI's trustworthiness.
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