Securing communication on your web browsers is critical to mitigating data breaches. One way to safeguard your browsers is to leverage the tools provided by public key infrastructure (PKI). So, what is PKI in cyber security? At a base level, PKI ensures that data remains encrypted while it is being transmitted over web browsers. Read on to learn more about PKI security.
What is PKI in Cyber Security: A Comprehensive Breakdown
Taking advantage of PKI to secure online communication will help you mitigate security risks to sensitive data. Below, we’ll walk you through the fundamental aspects of PKI, including:
- The various types of PKI certificates
- Differences between public and private keys
- Public key infrastructure example use cases
- Benefits and limitations of PKI cybersecurity
When business leaders ask, “what is PKI in cyber security?” A succinct answer is that it is a robust tool to keep sensitive data safe online amidst security risks.
What is PKI?
Public key infrastructure (PKI) means a set of tools and processes to manage cryptographic keys that encrypt any communication on web browsers. PKI provides assurance that the data you send or receive over the Internet is secured—and helps verify the identity of the party sending this data. Securing transactions on the Internet takes center stage when using a PKI, meaning any organization that operates a public-facing website can take advantage of PKIs.
The Components of a PKI
A PKI comprises four elements:
- A certificate authority (CA) is responsible for issuing digital certificates, which serve as proof of an established PKI.
- A registration authority (RA) may be a CA or another third party responsible for verifying the identities of entities that request digital certificates.
- A repository serves as the location for storing active certificates and can inform website users about the validity of a given certificate.
- An archive documents the procedures governing the PKI and can help website users gauge whether they can trust a certificate.
Understanding the role played by each component of a PKI will help you develop or optimize secure digital certificates.
PKI Certificate Types
In general, there are three types of PKI certificates:
- SSL/TLS certificates encrypt data transmission between web browsers and web servers.
- Code signing certificates demonstrate to users that applications have not been tampered with and can be trusted.
- Client certificates secure private connections via email or other modes of communication, especially where sensitive data is involved.
The uses for each certificate type will vary based on your security needs at a given time.
The Difference Between Public Key And Private Key
When comparing a PKI public key vs private key, the main difference is that public keys secure the transmission of messages or data from one user to another. However, private ones decode messages sent to a specific user. Public and private keys operate hand in hand to ensure that communication over digital channels such as the Internet is kept secure.
Why is a PKI Important
PKI security is critical to safeguarding sensitive data transmitted via email or web browsers.
As security risks that affect web or email applications keep evolving, leveraging PKI to keep your web or email transactions secure will help you stay ahead of these threats.
For example, PKI authentication can help you identify malicious actors who attempt to steal information via fake websites or emails.
How a PKI Works
The most practical example of how PKI works is with SSL/TLS certificates, which secure transactions conducted on websites. It starts with a website owner obtaining a digital certificate from a CA, who must verify the site owner’s identity. When you—as a website owner—receive the SSL/TLS certificate, you can then upload it to your web server as proof of TLS encryption.
Websites encrypted with TLS (Transport Layer Security) encryption protocols leverage public and private keys to secure data sharing through complex encryption and decryption processes.
Based on the chain of trust established by the TLS/SSL certificate and demonstrated by the HTTPS in a website’s URL, users can verify that a website has a secure PKI.
Common Use Cases for PKI
Regardless of your industry, you can use PKI to:
- Recover encrypted drives (e.g., hard drives)
- Safeguard sensitive data transmitted internally or externally
- Secure documents shared electronically
- Encrypt email messaging
Any asset connected to the Internet that can be a source of network breaches can be secured with PKI security.
Digital Certificates and Certification Authorities (CAs)
Considering the sensitivity of data shared over websites or emails, CAs must ensure that digital certificates are issued to legitimate entities—authentication of an entity’s identity is critical.
When you apply for and receive a digital certificate, it will comprise:
- A public key to encrypt transactions taking place on the application you intend to secure
- A validity period during which the certificate will be active
- A digital signature confirming that a CA issued the certificate
Beyond issuing digital certificates, CAs are also responsible for maintaining their status and issuing certification revocation lists (CRLs), which show certificates that the CA revoked for security or legitimacy reasons.
How to Get a PKI Certificate
Getting a PKI certificate starts with approaching a CA for one and proving that you own the application or infrastructure for which you need the certificate. The CA issuing the certificate will likely ask for proof of ownership, which might involve proving you have administrator privileges.
Currently, there isn’t any regulatory oversight of CAs, meaning you must carefully choose one who will serve your organization’s PKI security needs. However, a managed security services provider (MSSP) can help you choose the right CA for your specific purposes.
The Advantages of PKI
PKI is widely used and is likely the most common form of encryption on the Internet, helping any organization, regardless of size or industry, protect sensitive transactions. By investing in PKI, you are demonstrating your commitment to securing data transmission within your applications connected to the Internet.
Security Limitations of Public Key Infrastructure
Although PKI is widely implemented, poor PKI certificate management remains a big issue.
If a public key infrastructure is not effectively managed, organizations can experience website or email downtime. Furthermore, without the appropriate time or resource investments into managing a PKI, there will be gaps and vulnerabilities in its controls that can result in breach risks to sensitive data.
PKI Frequently Asked Questions
Is PKI a Protocol?
No, PKI is not a protocol. Rather, it is a set of tools and processes to help organizations manage the public cryptographic keys that secure digital assets on the Internet.
What Type of Encryption Does PKI Use?
PKI uses symmetric key encryption. Here, private keys and public keys work in tandem to secure assets on the Internet, such as websites or emails.
Does SSL Use PKI?
Yes, SSL uses PKI. The public and private keys that encrypt data transmitted over websites are managed via PKI encryption, which can be demonstrated by PKI certificates.
Does Using A PKI Infrastructure Guarantee Secure Authentication?
Whereas PKI demonstrates secure authentication of websites or emails, it should not be considered the only means of securing these assets. You should also invest in secondary forms of authentication such as identity and access management.
How Do Private And Public Keys Work?
Using email encryption as an example, a public key encrypts a message before a user sends it, while a private key is used by the recipient to view the message and confirm its legitimacy before opening it.
How Do You Generate A Public Key?
You can generate a public key by applying for a PKI certificate.
Since the public key identifies the sender of an encrypted message, the certificate can be used to demonstrate the identity and origin of the sender.
Why Should Companies Use PKI?
Companies should use PKI to safeguard the sensitivity of data transmission over the Internet, whether on websites or via emails.
Final Thoughts – Build a Robust Public Key Infrastructure
The next time you ponder the question, “what is PKI in cyber security?” remember that it revolves around several factors, ranging from PKI certificates to cryptographic keys. The most effective way to optimize your email encryption is to partner with a dedicated MSSP, who can provide you with robust and reliable security for your assets on the Internet.
To learn more, contact RSI Security today!