Definitions

Certificate authority

Certificate authority

In cryptography, a certificate authority or certification authority (CA) is an entity which issues digital certificates for use by other parties. It is an example of a trusted third party. CAs are characteristic of many public key infrastructure (PKI) schemes.

There are many commercial CAs that charge for their services. Institutions and governments may have their own CAs, and there are also CAs which are free of charge.

Issuing a certificate

A CA issues digital certificates which contain a public key and the identity of the owner. The CA also attests that the public key contained in the certificate belongs to the person, organization, server or other entity noted in the certificate. A CA's obligation in such schemes is to verify an applicant's credentials, so that users and relying parties can trust the information in the CA's certificates.

If the user trusts the CA and can verify the CA's signature, then he can also verify that a certain public key does indeed belong to whoever is identified in the certificate. If the CA can be subverted, then the security of the entire system is lost.

Suppose an attacker, Mallory (to use the Alice and Bob convention), manages to get a CA to issue a false certificate tying Alice to the wrong public key; the corresponding private key is known to Mallory. If Bob subsequently obtains and uses Alice's public key in this (bogus) certificate, the security of his communications to her could be compromised by Mallory - since Bob's messages could be decrypted by Mallory, or Bob could be tricked into accepting signatures which are forged to appear to be from Alice.

Security

The problem of assuring correctness of match between data and entity when the data are presented to the CA (perhaps over an electronic network), and when the credentials of the person/company/program asking for a certificate are likewise presented, is difficult. This is why commercial CAs often use a combination of authentication techniques including leveraging government bureaus, the payment infrastructure, third parties' databases and services, and custom heuristics. In some enterprise systems, local forms of authentication such as Kerberos can be used to obtain a certificate which can in turn be used by external relying parties. Notaries are required in some cases to personally know the party whose signature is being notarized; this is a higher standard than can be reached for many CAs. According to the American Bar Association outline on Online Transaction Management the primary points of federal and state statutes that have been enacted regarding digital signatures in the United States has been to "prevent conflicting and overly burdensome local regulation and to establish that electronic writings satisfy the traditional requirements associated with paper documents." Further the E-Sign and UETA code help ensure that:

  1. a signature, contract or other record relating to such transaction may not be denied legal effect, validity, or enforceability solely because it is in electronic form; and
  2. a contract relating to such transaction may not be denied legal effect, validity or enforceability solely because an electronic signature or electronic record was used in its formation.

In large-scale deployments, Alice may not be familiar with Bob's certificate authority (perhaps they each have a different CA), so Bob's certificate may also include his CA's public key signed by a different CA2, which is presumably recognizable by Alice. This process typically leads to a hierarchy or mesh of CAs and CA certificates.

Providers

Worldwide, the certificate authority business is fragmented, with national or regional providers dominating their home market. This is because many uses of digital certificates, such as for legally binding digital signatures, are linked to local law, regulations, and accreditation schemes for certificate authorities.

However, the market for SSL certificates (used for website security) is largely held by a small number of multinational companies. This market has significant barriers to entry since new providers must undergo annual security audits (such as WebTrust for Certification Authorities) to be included in the list of web browser trusted authorities. More than 50 root certificates are already trusted in the most popular web browser versions. A 2007 market share report from Security Space as of September of that year determined that VeriSign and its acquisitions (which include Thawte and more recently Geotrust) have a 57.6% share of the certificate authority market, followed by Comodo (8.3%), and GoDaddy (6.4%). According to Netcraft's July 2008 Secure Server Survey, additional top providers include GlobalSign and Entrust. Netcraft's findings do not include non-public-facing certificates.

See also

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References

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