Digital Certificate Basics

By | November 9, 2014

I have used digital certificates for quite some time without actually knowing how things work, for instance when a HTTPS connection is established between a client and a server. My knowledge was limited to a set of procedures like “put the truststore here and insert the appropriate password there and things will work”.

In this article, I explain to myself some of the concepts commonly associated with digital certificates and their use.
I have tried to introduce the different concepts in an order so that all the concepts needed to understand a new concepts have already been properly explained. Regretfully, this has not always been possible so please bear that in mind when reading this article.

Algorithm

An algorithm is a list of instructions that are to be performed in a specific order which purpose is to produce a specific result.
One everyday-example of an algorithm is a cooking recipe, which is a list of instructions that, given a number of ingredients, hopefully will produce an edible product.

A cooking algorithm, a.k.a a recipe. Illustration created & copyrighted by minhhapham(at)gmx.de.

A cooking algorithm, a.k.a a recipe. Illustration created & copyrighted by minhhapham(at)gmx.de.

An algorithm can take a number of parameters. For example, a cooking recipe may take the number of persons that are to be served as a parameter. The weight, volume or count of each of the ingredients in the recipe is multiplied with the number of persons, in order to produce the proper amount of food.

Cryptographic algorithms, which is the kind of algorithms that this article focus on, is a list of instructions that describe the process of encrypting or decrypting messages.

Encryption

Encryption is a process in which a message of some sort that can be readily interpreted is transformed into a message that is difficult, or impossible, to interpret. The original, interpretable, message is said to be a clear-text message and the processed message is called en encrypted message.

A trivial example of encryption may consist of replacing characters with digits.
Example:
a = 1, b = 2, c = 3 etc.
Clear-text message: hello
Encrypted message: 8, 5, 12, 12, 15

Decryption

Decryption is the opposite to encryption, that is a process in which an encrypted message is transformed into a message in clear-text.

Example:
a = 1, b = 2, c = 3 etc.
Encrypted message: 8, 5, 12, 12, 15
Clear-text message: hello

Cryptographic Key

A cryptographic key, commonly abbreviated key, is a parameter to a cryptographic algorithm.
Such keys are commonly used to transform messages in clear-text to encrypted messages or vice versa.

Symmetric Cryptography

Symmetric cryptography is cryptography, that is encrypting and decrypting messages, performed using a group of cryptographic algorithms which require the same cryptographic key that was used to encrypt a message to be used when decrypting the message.
The key is commonly referred to as a shared secret; if exactly two persons know a key, they can use it to encrypt messages which can only be read by the other person holding the key (and the person who wrote the message).

Symmetric cryptography has been used for thousands of years in various forms.

Symmetric Cryptography

Symmetric cryptography; the same key is used to encrypt and decrypt the message.

The figure above shows an example of symmetric cryptography:

  • The Sender composes a message (“Hello!”).
  • The Sender encrypts the message with an encryption key.
    In this example the encryption key is the string “b1Ag#m3E!g”.
    The encryption key is a parameter of the encryption algorithm.
  • The encrypted message is transferred to the Receiver.
  • The Receiver decrypts the encrypted message.
    The Receiver uses the same key as the Sender used to encrypt the message with, that is the string “b1Ag#m3E!g”. The encryption key is a parameter of the decryption algorithm.

Public Key

A public key is a type of parameter of a cryptographic algorithm. Such a key can be used to encrypt messages intended for a specific receiver but can also be used to verify digital signatures.
As the name indicates, a public key is not secret and may be distributed to anyone.
For each public key there is a corresponding private key – these two types of keys are actually created in pairs.

Private Key

Like a public key, a private key is also a type of parameter of a cryptographic algorithm. The private key is, however, to be kept secret and must not be distributed.
The use of private keys are somewhat different from that of public keys; private keys are used to decrypt messages encrypted with the public key that belongs to the same key-pair. Private keys can also be used to create digital signatures, something that will be explained below.
A private key is created when a key-pair consisting of a public and a private key is created.

Assymmetric Cryptography

Asymmetric cryptography, also referred to as cryptography with public keys, was invented in the mid 1970s. It is a group of cryptographic algorithms that require two cryptographic keys; one public key and one private key. If a public key was used to encrypt a message, then only the corresponding private key can be used to decrypt the message.

The following illustration shows one example of how asymmetric cryptography may be used:

Asymmetric cryptography; a public key is used to encrypt the message and the corresponding private key is used to decrypt the message.

Asymmetric cryptography; a public key is used to encrypt the message and the corresponding private key is used to decrypt the message.

  • The Receiver creates a pair of cryptographic keys consisting of a public key (blue) and a private key (orange).
  • The Receiver sends his public key to the Sender.
  • The Sender composes a message.
  • The Sender encrypts the message using the Receiver’s public key.
  • The encrypted message is transferred to the Receiver.
  • The Receiver decrypts the message using his private key.

Cryptographic Hash-Function

A cryptographic hash-function is a function that, given a message of arbitrary length, calculates a value of a given length – a hash-value. The hash-value depends on the contents of the message fed into the hash-function and if the same message is given to the same hash-function twice, the result will be two identical values.

Cryptographic hash-functions should have the following properties:

  • A hash-value should be easy to calculate for an arbitrary message.
  • Given a hash-value, it should be difficult, or better yet impossible, to calculate the message that was used to calculate the hash-value.
  • Given a hash-value, it should be difficult to find a message, other than the message that was used to calculate the hash-value, that results in the same hash-value.
  • There should be no patterns in the hash-values produced by one and the same hash-function.
    It would not be desirable to, for instance, be able to see the length of the in-data in the hash-value.
  • It should not be possible to modify a message in a way that does not change the hash-value of the message.

The following table shows hash-values for some strings calculated using the SHA512 cryptographic hash-function:

[table nl=”~~”]String,SHA512 Hash-value
abc,ddaf35a193617abacc417349ae20413112e6fa4e89a97ea20a9eeee~~64b55d39a2192992a274fc1a836ba3c23a3feebbd454d4423643ce8~~0e2a9ac94fa54ca49f
abd,1a9840c27a5cf22dab060cdd8a83da2b0fbcb1aeb52d4f9d3894b63~~9083e205a5ab3f6afaeeb21b8e99b5e0fe93daafaabeef274da5d6ead~~cc9db36e5b6f64c4
This is a complete sentence that consists of several words.,57a6fe5d76c017fd5916b66ecbeac6dc1db13bf1c5eab2496ed9489~~c9babf12b5e43a84b412d2e41394a0c75c6c4c7d2d0f11d3366931f~~ec6efa2405aa91a89d[/table]

Digital Certificate

A digital certificate consists of a public key and data that can be used to verify the owner of the public key. Some examples of the data contained in a digital certificate are:

  • Version.
  • Subject.
    The owner, a person, company or some other type of entity, of the public key.
  • Certificate issuer.
    The organization that issued the certificate and that has verified the owner of the certificate.
  • Serial number.
    A number that can be used to uniquely identify the certificate.
  • Validity period.
    Date and time of the start and end of the period of time during which the certificate is valid.
  • Signature.
    Digital signature (see below) of the certificate issuer.
  • Signature algorithm.
    The type of algorithm used to create the signature of the certificate.
  • A public key.

Thus, given a digital certificate, I can identify the owner of the certificate and also identify the certificate issuer.

Digital Signature

A digital signature is a hash-value of some document or message that has been encrypted using someone’s private key.
One use case for digital signatures is when someone wants to transmit a message, which may be encrypted or not, and the recipient of the message wants to confirm that the message is indeed from a particular sender and that the received message is identical to the message that was sent.
Digital signatures are also used as means of verification that a person either has produced some digital document or has been given access to the document.
If the person is the sender, he/she signs the document using his/her private key.
If the person is obliged to read a digital document, the person creates a digital signature using his/her private key and appends it to the digital digital signatures being distributed with the document.
The following figure shows how a message is signed using a digital signature:

Signing a message using a digital signature.

Signing a message using a digital signature.

Since the document is signed using private key(s), anyone with access to the corresponding public keys can decrypt the hash-value, which then also can be verified against the hash-value of the document to ascertain that the document has not been altered since it was signed. Depending on which public key(s) were used to decrypt the signature(s) of the document, one can also determine who have signed the document.
This figure shows how the signature of a digitally signed document is verified:

Verifying a digitally signed message or document.

Verifying a digitally signed message or document.

Certificate Authority

A certificate authority, CA for short, is a trusted organization that issues certificates – a certificate issuer.
The certificate authority has (at least) a public key, which is made available to anyone, as common with public keys. In addition the certificate authority provides a service where persons and companies can have their certificates signed with the certificate authority’s private key.
Since the certificate authority is trusted and since the certificate authority’s digital signature in digital certificates signed by the certificate authority can be verified using the certificate authority’s public key, trust is to extend to include these digital certificates.
Certificate authorities also store public keys and information about the owners of the public keys.

The role of a certificate authority in the interaction between a bank and its customer.

The role of a certificate authority in the interaction between a bank and its customer.

The figure above shows the role of a certificate authority in the interaction between a bank’s customer and some server of the bank.
When a customer connects to the bank’s server from his/her browser, the browser receives the bank’s certificate as part of the initial handshake. The bank’s certificate has been signed by some certificate authority. The browser contain the public keys of trusted certificate authorities. The browser will, also as part of the handshake with the bank’s server, examine the received certificate, locate the appropriate public key and, using the public key, verify the signature in the certificate.
If no appropriate trusted public key is found or if the signature verification failed for some other reason, the browser will notify the bank customer. If the certificate signature were verified, the bank customer can be assured that he/she is connected to a server which is indeed the bank’s and communication between the bank customer’s browser and the bank server will proceed.

Self-Signed Certificates

A certificate which has been signed using the corresponding private key is called a self-signed certificate. Thus the owner of the public key vouches for his/her own identity. Self-signed certificates can easily be created and may be of less value, as far as trust is concerned, depending on the issuing organization.

Root Certificate

A root certificate is a digital certificate, that is either self-signed or not signed at all, which has been issued by a certificate authority that has the highest degree of trust.
Root certificates are used to sign other certificates, as to confirm the owner of those certificates.
If some person or entity that trusts the root certificate receives another certificate which is signed by a certificate which path up the certificate chain ends in the root certificate, then this person or entity can trust the other certificate.

Java Keystore

A Java keystore is a file that may contain an arbitrary number of digital certificates. Certificates in a keystore may, in addition to public keys, also contain private keys.
Keystores are used, for instance, by servers communicating over HTTPS to store their own private key.

Java Truststore

A Java truststore is keystore that contains certificates which only contain public keys.
Truststores can be used by clients communicating over HTTPS to store the digital certificates belonging to trusted servers.

HTTPS

HTTPS is communication using the HTTP protocol with transport security, that is, encryption added.
There are two types of HTTPS connections and the difference is in the handshake performed before the actual communication starts. The following are simplified descriptions of what happens during the handshake process of these two types of HTTPS connections:
With plain HTTPS, the server sends its certificate to the client when performing the initial handshake. The client examines this certificate to see whether it has been signed by a trusted certificate authority or if the server’s public key is present in the clients truststore.

HTTPS without client authentication; a client requests a web-page from a server.

HTTPS without client authentication; a client requests a web-page from a server.

When using HTTPS with mutual authentication, not only does the server sends its certificate to the client but the client also sends its certificate to the server. Both the client and the server checks the received certificates to determine whether they are trusted or not and the communication link will only be established if both the server trust the client and the client trusts the server.

HTTPS with mutual authentication; a client requests a web-page from a server.

HTTPS with mutual authentication; a client requests a web-page from a server.

 

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