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How Does PKI Work?

PKI (or Public Key Infrastructure) is the framework of encryption and cybersecurity that protects communications between the server (your website) and the client (the users). It works by using two different cryptographic keys, a public key and a private key. The public key is available to any user that connects with the website. The private key is a unique key generated when a connection is made, and kept secret. When communicating, the client uses the public key to encrypt and decrypt, and the server uses the private key. This protects the user’s information from theft or tampering.

Digital Certificates

PKI functions because of digital certificates. A digital certificate is just like a drivers license—it’s a form of electronic identification for websites and organizations. Secure connections between two communicating machines are made available through PKI because the identities of the two parties can be verified by way of certificates.

So how do devices get these certificates? You can create your own certificates for internal communications. If you would like certificates for a commercial site or something of a larger scale, you can obtain a PKI digital certificate through a trusted third party issuer, called a certificate authority.

Much like the state government issuing you a license, certificate authorities vet the organizations seeking certificates and issue one based on their findings. Just as someone trusts the validity of your license based on the authority of the government, devices trust digital certificates based on the authority of the issuing certificate authorities. This process is similar to how code signing works to verify programs and downloads.

PKI & Digital Certificates

PKI functions on asymmetric key methodology; a private key and a public key. The private key can only be accessed by the owner of a digital certificate, and they can choose where the public key goes. A certificate is essentially a way of handing out that public key to those the owner wants to have it.

Private and public PKI keys must work together. A file that is encrypted by the private key can only be decrypted by the public key, and vice versa. If the public key can only decrypt the file that has been encrypted by the private key, being able to decrypt that file assures that the intended receiver and sender took part in the informational transaction.

Popular Ways PKI is Used

PKI security is used in many different ways. The following are a few ways that PKI security can be used.

  • Securing Emails
  • Securing web communications (such as retail transactions)
  • Digitally signing software
  • Digitally signing applications
  • Encrypting files
  • Decrypting files
  • Smart card authentication

If you want to learn more about how PKI can be used in your life and your business? Contact Venafi and see how we can help you get the authentication you need today.

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