Digital certificates



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Certificates provide a way of authenticating users. Instead of requiring each participant in an application to authenticate every user, third-party authentication relies on the use of digital certificates.

A digital certificate is equivalent to an electronic ID card. It serves two purposes:

Certificates are issued by trusted parties, called certificate authorities (CAs). These authorities can be commercial ventures or they can be local entities, depending on the requirements of your application. Regardless, the CA is trusted to adequately authenticate users before issuing certificates. A CA issues certificates with digital signatures. When a user presents a certificate, the recipient of the certificate validates it by using the digital signature. If the digital signature validates the certificate, the certificate is recognized as intact and authentic. Participants in an application only need to validate certificates; they do not need to authenticate users. The fact that a user can present a valid certificate proves that the CA has authenticated the user. The descriptor, trusted third-party, indicates that the system relies on the trustworthiness of the CAs.


Contents of a digital certificate

A certificate contains several pieces of information, including information about the owner of the certificate and the issuing CA. Specifically, a certificate includes:

The core idea of a certificate is that a CA takes the owner's public key, signs the public key with its own private key, and returns the information to the owner as a certificate. When the owner distributes the certificate to another party, it signs the certificate with its private key. The receiver can extract the certificate (containing the CA signature) with the owner's public key. By using the CA public key and the CA signature on the extracted certificate, the receiver can validate the CA signature. If it is valid, the public key used to extract the certificate is recognized as good. The owner signature is then validated, and if the validation succeeds, the owner is successfully authenticated to the receiver.

The additional information in a certificate helps an application decide whether to honor the certificate. With the expiration date, the application can determine if the certificate is still valid. With the name of the issuing CA, the application can check that the CA is considered trustworthy by the site.

A process that uses certificates must provide its personal certificate, the one containing its public key, and the certificate of the CA that signed its certificate, called a signer certificate. In cases where chains of trust are established, several signer certificates can be involved.


Requesting certificates

To get a certificate, send a certificate request to the CA. The certificate request includes:

The message-digest function is run over all these fields.

The CA verifies the signature with the public key in the request to ensure that the request is intact and authentic. The CA then authenticates the owner. Exactly what the authentication consists of depends on a prior agreement between the CA and the requesting organization. If the owner in the request is successfully authenticated, the CA issues a certificate for that owner.


Using certificates: Chain of trust and self-signed certificate

To verify the digital signature on a certificate, have the public key of the issuing CA. Because public keys are distributed in certificates, have a certificate for the issuing CA that is signed by the issuer. One CA can certify other CAs, so a chain of CAs can issue certificates for other CAs, all of whose public keys you need. Eventually, you reach a root CA that issues itself a self-signed certificate. To validate a user's certificate, you need certificates for all intervening participants, back to the root CA. Then you have the public keys you need to validate each certificate, including the user's.

A self-signed certificate contains the public key of the issuer and is signed with the private key. The digital signature is validated like any other, and if the certificate is valid, the public key it contains is used to check the validity of other certificates issued by the CA. However, anyone can generate a self-signed certificate. In fact, one can probably generate self-signed certificates for testing purposes before installing production certificates. The fact that a self-signed certificate contains a valid public key does not mean that the issuer is really a trusted certificate authority. To ensure that self-signed certificates are generated by trusted CAs, such certificates must be distributed by secure means (hand-delivered on floppy disks, downloaded from secure sites, and so on).

Applications that use certificates store these certificates in a keystore file. This file typically contains the necessary personal certificates, its signing certificates, and its private key. The private key is used by the application to create digital signatures. Servers always have personal certificates in their keystore files. A client requires a personal certificate only if the client must authenticate to the server when mutual authentication is enabled.

To allow a client to authenticate to a server, a server keystore file contains the private key and the certificate of the server and the certificates of its CA. A client truststore file must contain the signer certificates of the CAs of each server to which the client must authenticate.

If mutual authentication is needed, the client keystore file must contain the client private key and certificate. The server truststore file requires a copy of the certificate of the client CA.


See also

Digital signatures
Public key cryptography


See Also

Security: Resources for learning