Digital signatures


A digital signature is a number attached to a document. For example, in an authentication system that uses public-key encryption, digital signatures are used to sign certificates.

This signature establishes the following information:

A digital signature is created in two steps. The first step distills the document into a large number. This number is the digest code or fingerprint. The digest code is then encrypted, resulting in the digital signature. The digital signature is appended to the document from which the digest code was generated.

Several options are available for generating the digest code. WAS supports the MD5 message digest function and the SHA1 secure hash algorithm, but these procedures reduce a message to a number. This process is not encryption, but a sophisticated checksum. The message cannot regenerate from the resulting digest code. The crucial aspect of distilling the document to a number is that if the message changes, even in a trivial way, a different digest code results. When the recipient gets a message and verifies the digest code by recomputing it, any changes in the document result in a mismatch between the stated and the computed digest codes.

To stop someone from intercepting a message, changing it, recomputing the digest code, and retransmitting the modified message and code, you need a way to verify the digest code as well. To verify the digest code, reverse the use of the public and private keys. For private communication, it makes no sense to encrypt messages with your private key; these keys can be decrypted by anyone with your public key. This technique can be useful for proving that a message came from you. No one can create it because no one else has your private key. If some meaningful message results from decrypting a document by using someone's public key, the decryption process verifies that the holder of the corresponding private key did encrypt the message.

The second step in creating a digital signature takes advantage of this reverse application of public and private keys. After a digest code is computed for a document, the digest code is encrypted with the sender's private key. The result is the digital signature, which is attached to the end of the message.

When the message is received, the recipient follows these steps to verify the signature:

  1. Recomputes the digest code for the message.

  2. Decrypts the signature by using the sender's public key. This decryption yields the original digest code for the message.

  3. Compares the original and recomputed digest codes. If these codes match, the message is both intact and authentic. If not, something has changed and the message is not to be trusted.