Certificate Authorities

The CA is the trusted authority that certifies individuals' identities and creates electronic documents indicating that individuals are who they say they are. The electronic document is referred to as a digital certificate, and it establishes an association between the subject's identity and a public key. The private key that is paired with the public key in the certificate is stored separately. It is important to safeguard the private key, and it typically never leaves the machine or device where it was created.

The CA is more than just a piece of software, however; it is actually made up of the software, hardware, procedures, policies, and people who are involved in validating individuals' identities and generating the certificates. This means that if one of these components is compromised, it can negatively affect the CA overall and can threaten the integrity of the certificates it produces.

Every CA should have a certification practices statement (CPS) that outlines how identities are verified; the steps the CA follows to generate, maintain, and transmit certificates; and why the CA can be trusted to fulfill its responsibilities. It describes how keys are secured, what data is placed within a digital certificate, and how revocations will be handled. If a company is going to use and depend on a public CA, the company's security officers, administrators, and legal department should review the CA's entire CPS to ensure that it will properly meet the company's needs, and to make sure that the level of security claimed by the CA is high enough for their use and environment. A critical aspect of a PKI is the trust between the users and the CA, so the CPS should be reviewed and understood to ensure that this level of trust is warranted.

Registration Authorities

The registration authority (RA) is the component that accepts a request for a digital certificate and performs the necessary steps of registering and authenticating the person requesting the certificate. The authentication requirements differ depending on the type of certificate being requested.

The types of certificates available can vary between different CAs, but usually at least three different types are available, and they are referred to as classes:

Class 1 A Class 1 certificate is usually used to verify an individual's identity through email. A person who receives a Class 1 certificate can use his public/ private key pair to digitally sign e-mail and encrypt message contents.

Class 2 A Class 2 certificate can be used for software signing. A software vendor would register for this type of certificate so it could digitally sign its software. This provides integrity for the software after it is developed and released, and it allows the receiver of the software to verify from where the software actually came.

Class 3 A Class 3 certificate can be used by a company to set up its own CA, which will allow it to carry out its own identification verification and generate certificates internally.

Each higher class of certificate can carry out more powerful and critical tasks than the one before it. This is why the different classes have different requirements for proof of identity. If you want to receive a Class 1 certificate, you may only be asked to provide your name, e-mail address, and physical address. For a Class 2 certification, you may need to provide the RA with more data, such as your driver's license, passport, and company information that can be verified. To obtain a Class 3 certificate, you will be asked to provide even more information and most likely will need to go to the RA's office for a face-to-face meeting. Each CA will outline the certification classes it provides and the identification requirements that must be met to acquire each type of certificate In most situations, when a user requests a Class 1 certificate, the registration process will require the user to enter specific information into a web-based form. The web page will have a section that accepts the user's public key, or it will step the user through creating a public/private key pair, which will allow the user to choose the size of the keys to be created. Once these steps have been completed, the public key is attached to the certificate registration form and both are forwarded to the RA for processing. The RA is responsible only for the registration process and cannot actually generate a certificate.

Once the RA is finished processing the request and verifying the individual's identity, the RA will send the request to the CA. The CA will use the RA-provided information to generate a digital certificate, integrate the necessary data into the certificate fields (user identification information, public key, validity dates, proper use for the key and certificate, and so on), and send a copy of the certificate to the user.

Local Registration Authorities

A local registration authority (LRA) performs the same functions as an RA, but the LRA is closer to the end users. This component is usually implemented in companies that have their own internal PKIs and have distributed sites. Each site has users that need RA services, so instead of requiring them to communicate with one central RA, each site can have its own LRA. This reduces the amount of traffic that would be created by several users making requests across wide area network (WAN) lines. The LRA will perform identification, verification, and registration functions. It will then send the request, along with the user's public key, to a centralized CA so that the certificate can be generated.

It acts as an interface between the users and the CA. LRAs simplify the RA/CA process for entities that desire certificates only for in-house use.