Public Key Infrastructure (PKI)
A Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) enables users of a basically unsecure public network such as the Internet to securely and privately exchange data and money through the use of a public and a private cryptographic key pair that is obtained and shared through a trusted authority. The public key infrastructure provides for a digital certificate that can identify an individual or an organization and directory services that can store and, when necessary, revoke the certificates. Although the components of a PKI are generally understood, a number of different vendor approaches and services are emerging. Meanwhile, an Internet standard for PKI is being worked on.
The public key infrastructure assumes the use of public key cryptography, which is the most common method on the Internet for authenticating a message sender or encrypting a message. Traditional cryptography has usually involved the creation and sharing of a secret key for the encryption and decryption of messages. This secret or private key system has the significant flaw that if the key is discovered or intercepted by someone else, messages can easily be decrypted. For this reason, public key cryptography and the public key infrastructure is the preferred approach on the Internet. (The private key system is sometimes known as symmetric cryptography and the public key system as asymmetric cryptography.)
A public key infrastructure consists of:
- A certificate authority (CA) that issues and verifies digital certificate. A certificate includes the public key or information about the public key
- A registration authority (RA) that acts as the verifier for the certificate
- Authority before a digital certificate is issued to a requestor
- One or more directories where the certificates (with their public keys) are held
- A certificate management system.