You’ve come to the right place if you’ve ever wondered what public key infrastructure (PKI) is. It’s something that safeguards our assets, our personal information, and so much more. The insane thing is that most people have no idea what it is…
So, you’ve come to the conclusion that it’s time to inquire. We know you’ve put it off. We recognise that this is a significant problem. It’s fine, though. We’ll show you how to do it. And before you know it, you’ll be talking with your coworkers and dropping tidbits of information when someone asks, “What is PKI?”
Getting Right to the Point: What Is Public Key Infrastructure (PKI)?
Here’s a short description of PKI before we get into a more comprehensive, multi-layered explanation: The infrastructure that develops and maintains public key encryption and digital signature services is known as public key infrastructure. Digital keys and certificates must be generated, stored, distributed, maintained, revoked, and used in order for public key encryption to function. PKI enables encryption to be used for software, hardware, protocols, rules, procedures, and services to achieve both of these goals.
Continue reading if you want a more detailed, multi-layered interpretation of PKI.
In response to the question, “What is Public Key Infrastructure?” — From a Height of 100,000 Feet
We recognise that this is a difficult issue, as we previously mentioned. Let’s start with a riddle, just to make the complexity of PKI clear. What is something that no one can see but which makes others see what they can’t? PKI, you guessed it!
In certain ways, that’s an apt representation. Consider public key infrastructure to be the all-powerful helping hand. Anything and everything can be helped with a helping hand. PKI is no exception. It is always present, no matter what is required of it. PKI is the leading hand that makes online banking, tax payments, and Amazon shopping safer and more secure! It’s there to assist you in every way possible!
It acts as a type of facilitator.
Now, maybe that didn’t help all that much (perhaps we’re not as helpful as PKI), but let’s get you down to 50,000 feet. With a little backstory about encryption, keys, and Julius Caesar, we can accomplish this.
PKI History: The PKI Story Begins Nearly 4,000 Years Ago
Yeah, we’re doing a Marty McFly-style flashback. Is it possible that it was a flash forward? It’s impossible to tell when he’ll go BACK to the future… I’m getting off track here.
To fully comprehend PKI, you must first understand its history. Proof of encryption has been found dating back to 1900 BC. Caesar’s Cipher, produced about 40-50 BC, is perhaps the most famous example of encryption history. Caesar used a move cypher, which scrambled letters by jumping a set number of letters ahead in the alphabet. This proved to be an excellent technique for shielding his messages from being intercepted by enemies.
This leads us to traditional (also known as symmetric) encryption. To continue with Caesar’s example, he knew what the key was to decipher his messages, which meant the person receiving the message also needed to know what the key was. This is how standard encryption works.
Another example of traditional encryption can be found here. Let’s pretend Daffy Duck and Yosemite Sam don’t want Bugs Bunny to know they’re collaborating. How do they send hidden messages without Bugs noticing? There would have to be a way to encrypt messages and a key to decrypt them, but Daffy and Yosemite would have to figure out how to move the key around. They can’t meet in person because that will jeopardise their secrecy scheme. They couldn’t even transfer the key along with the message because that would render the whole process pointless.
Bugs seems to have had them once more. Daffy and Yosemite are having trouble working out how two people in different locations would agree on an encryption key in order to send encrypted messages. If Daffy and Yosemite had PKI by their side, they might just be able to pull it off this time.
To reply to the question, “What is PKI?” You Should Know About Public Key Encryption
Unlike traditional encryption, which uses only one key, PKI allows public key encryption (also known as asymmetric encryption) to use two keys. The first key encrypts, while the second key decrypts. The public key and the private key are the two keys that are used. The keys are correctly named because one is public and the other is private.
Daffy could encrypt his message using Yosemite’s public key using the public key encryption process. The message could only be decrypted by the person who had the private key (Yosemite). Bugs wouldn’t be able to retrieve anything useful from the message even though it was intercepted because the ciphertext would be gibberish without the decryption key.
Certainly an amazing form. Perhaps only the fact that I managed to turn Bugs Bunny into a hacker is more impressive.
Now extend this principle to two computers attempting to communicate in a safe manner. With PKI, these two computers will essentially communicate with one another, agree, exchange keys, and finally decrypt the message in transit.
So, from a 50,000-foot viewpoint, I assume that covers PKI. The rest of the way, we’ll carry you up to about 10,000 feet, which will give you a detailed understanding of PKI and, eventually, address the question “what is PKI?”
Who Are the Key Players Involved in PKI?
PKI is made up of three key components:
- One of them is the main pair we just discussed.
- Another example is certificate authorities (CAs). CAs are third-party organisations that create and maintain digital certificates. CAs have the prestigious distinction of being trusted to grant certificates by following ultra-strict standards set by the CA/Browser Forum (CA/B Forum), an autonomous community made up primarily of members from the world’s largest browsers.
- The final component is digital certificates, which are created by CAs. A digital certificate serves as a PKI passport. To fly internationally, you’ll need a visa, and to travel via PKI, you’ll need a digital certificate. Since a PKI digital certificate includes documents about the key and its holders, this is the case. It also requires a signature from the CA, similar to how a passport includes a stamp from the government of the traveller.
The inner workings of this infrastructure are made up of these three components (or “players,” as the title suggests).
Five Ways That PKI Helps Us in Our Everyday Lives
PKI, as we mentioned in the introduction, protects our money, privacy, and much more. It affects our lives on a daily basis. So, how can this largely overlooked infrastructure assist so many people? In virtually every field of digital communications, it promotes and encourages safety and security.
Here are five examples of how PKI accomplishes this:
It’s important in today’s digital world that we can communicate with websites without our acts being tracked or intercepted. HTTPS is possible thanks to PKI. Browsers and web servers (also known as websites) can communicate safely and securely using the encrypted HTTPS protocol. An SSL/TLS certificate is required for an HTTPS website.
You get the aforementioned public and private key pair when you instal an SSL certificate on your website. The private key is safely stored on the web server, allowing a user’s browser to verify the legitimacy of a website (server). Users can shop, upload personal details, and pay securely when visiting websites.
Another important field where PKI is used is email. PKI creates a secure environment for emails to be sent from one person to another. The secure/multipurpose internet mail extension (S/MIME) is the name for this process. To authenticate the sender and their post, S/MIME certificates are used to encrypt and digitally sign the email message. This also makes it harder for bad guys to tamper with emails.
Imagine opening WhatsApp and finding that you can’t send a message to your friends without it being intercepted and read. It’s a frightening thought. With the use of encryption, PKI makes it safer to use messaging services like WhatsApp.
Protected website correspondence, email, and messaging are all covered by PKI. What else is covered? Let’s say you download an app or programme, and it prompts you to create an account, enter your credit card details to purchase additional services, and provide additional personal information. But how can you be sure? That’s how: software developers and publishers use code signing certificates.
These certificates check that the file’s developer/publisher is who they claim to be. Using public key encryption, PKI allows code signing certificates to authenticate who the publisher is. Once the programme or application is signed, it also helps to avoid tampering.
Physically signing any document that requires it would be totally inefficient in today’s digital environment. That is how we arrive at document signing. PKI allows users to sign documents electronically while also proving to the recipient that the document was signed by a reputable source. This occurs when document signing certificates are used. PKI not only provides a safe way to digitally sign papers, but it also saves you a lot of hand cramps.
A Final Answer to the Question “What is PKI?”
We’ve made it all the way from Bugs Bunny to Marty McFly, Julius Caesar to HTTPS. PKI is much more than a piece of software or a finished product. PKI is a completely functioning device that enables us to work in the digital world safely and securely. It rules this world with encryption and authentication, allowing messages to fly, documents and downloads to be trusted, and, most importantly, for us to enjoy the beautiful world behind our computer screens.
It’s a pretty amazing thing for anything so little understood. So, the next time anyone asks, “What is PKI?” make sure you don’t leave out any “important” details.