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What is PKI as a Service and how does it build cybersecurity resiliency?

Confidentiality and privacy have become increasingly important as a result of more services being provided online and pressure to ensure those services are completely secure. Cybersecurity is top of mind for almost every organisation, with emphasis on ensuring reliable and trusted networks that can provide safety for all business departments and individuals alike. 

What is PKI?

Every web browser across the public internet is secured by ‘Public Key Infrastructure’, or PKI, which is one of the most prevalent forms of internet encryption. PKI is an essential piece of the cybersecurity solution and offers services that enable authentication, confidentiality and data integrity. Organisations can implement PKI for security of their internal communications, however PKI has traditionally been the term used to describe the process of establishing and managing public key encryption. 

PKI is used for many things, including securing internal communications, signing documents, securing local networks, secure messaging, email encryption and securing access to Internet of Things (IoT). 

What makes PKI public is the cryptographic keys that are at the foundation of the infrastructure. The cryptographic keys assist in authenticating the identity of the parties and devices across communication channels, and are a critical part of the encryption process. 

The reason PKI is important in both public internet, and within organisations, is the way it combines authentication and encryption to ensure the highest level of trust throughout online communication.

PKI elements

The two main aspects of PKI are keys and certificates. The key, in simple terms, is representative of the numbered code, or long string of code, that is used to encrypt data. 

Each party in a secured communication channel contains two keys, the public key, which is accessible to anyone that needs it, which allows for the message to be encoded when sent to the recipient. 

The private key, as it states, is private, meaning you don’t divulge this key and use it to decrypt the message once received. This form of encryption is highly complex and known as asymmetrical cryptography.

Certificates are like digital passports and are used to ensure that, in addition to your messages being encrypted, you can validate that the person transmitting the encrypted message is identified appropriately, i.e. they are who they say they are.

PKI certificates are data heavy, and are assigned to every entity that is included in the PKI-secured communication exchange. The particular entity has a public key and the certificate is the tool and method that enables the key to be exchanged. The certificate also ensures authentication and assurance that the source of the entity is trusted and validated as who they claim to be. The trusted source is generally referred to as the ‘certificate authority’ (CA).

Trust is at the core of PKI, and that’s why there are a number of key elements involved that contribute to the infrastructure and its usefulness. The elements include the ‘certificate authority’, ‘registration authority’, ‘certificate database’ and ‘certificate policy’.

The certificate authority issues the digital certificate, verifies with its public key and stores data for future reference. The registration authority verifies the identity of the digital certificate being requested, and can either be its own registration authority or a third party authority. The certificate database is concerned with the time period that the certificate is valid and stores the data to assure this. Finally, the certificate policy is where the PKI procedures are outlined, allowing outside users to certify how trusted the PKI actually is.

It’s imperative for any PKI system to have a certain method for certificate authorities to authenticate users effectively and that every entity in the PKI system trusts this method. 

SSL certificates are common and widely used, and use a ‘chain of trust’ where it’s compulsory for users to trust a root certificate which is granted authority. An alternate method is called the ‘web of trust’, where users are signed by other users, which is most often suited for self-contained networks, organisations or small user communities.

PKI as a Service (PKIaaS)

The rise and agility of secure cloud infrastructure has opened up a space for cloud-based PKI services that enterprises can now leverage, known as PKI-as-a-Service or PKIaaS. These services enable IT departments to keep ownership and control of their operations whilst the management of PKI and reduction of complexity is the responsibility of the contracted service provider.

The main elements of PKIaaS include the infrastructure, certificate distribution, automation, management and billing. PKIaaS takes the complexity out of PKI, helping organisations to implement it effectively by delegating the entire management of client certificates to the service provider.

PKIaaS integrates the processes and platforms involved, offering significant simplicity to any organisation. The kind of support to expect includes specialised support from providers trained and up to date with security regulations, best practices when it comes to adhering to policies and procedures, an automated and scalable platform to simplify PKI deployments; and less risk associated with expired certificates via multiple alerts that can be issued.