When you encrypt some text using a key, and you use the same key to decrypt it. This is called "symmetric encryption". If you need to send something private to 100 individuals, then you'll need to negotiate with each such individual to agree on a key (so 100 keys in total). This is troublesome.

To solve the problem, an individual may use something called a "private key" and a "public key". First, he uses some software to generate a pair of keys: One is the private key and the other is the public key. There is an interesting relationship between these two keys: If you use the private key to encrypt something, then it can only be decrypted using the public key (using the private key won't work). The reverse is also true: If you use the public key to encrypt something, then it can only be decrypted using the private key.

Now, suppose that you'd like to send something confidential to an individual Paul (see the diagram below), you can use his public key to encrypt it. Even though other people know his public key, they can't decrypt it (as it is encrypted using the public key, only the private key can decrypt it). Only Paul knows the private key and so only he can decrypt it. This kind of encryption is called "asymmetric encryption".

Digital signature

Suppose that the message you send to Paul is not confidential. However, Paul really needs to be sure that it is really from you. How to do that? You need to prove to Paul that the creator of the message knows your private key. If he does, then he must be you (remember, nobody else is supposed to know your private key). To prove that, you can use your private key to encrypt the message, then send it to Paul. Paul can try to decrypt it using your public key. If it works, then the creator of the message must know your private key and must be you.

However, this is not a good solution, because if the message is long, the encrypted message may double in size and the encryption takes a lot of time. To solve this problem, you can feed the message to a "one way hash function" (see the diagram below). No matter how long the input is, the output from the one way hash function is always the same small size (e.g., 128 bits). In addition, if two input messages are different (maybe just a single bit is different), then the output will be completely different. Therefore, the output message can be considered a small-sized snapshot of the input message. It is therefore called the "message digest" of the original message.

Another feature of the one way hash function is that it is very fast to calculate the digest of a given message, but it is extremely difficult to calculate a message given a digest. Otherwise people would find different messages for a given digest and it is no longer a good snapshot for the message.

Now, to prove to Paul that you know your private key, you can use your private key to encrypt the message digest (because the digest is small, the result is also small and the encryption process will be fast), then send both the message and the message digest to Paul. He can try to decrypt the digest using your public key. Then he can calculate the digest from the message and compare the two. If the two match, then the person producing the encrypted digest must be you.

The encrypted digest is called the "Digital Signature". The whole process of calculating the digest and then encrypting it is called "signing the message".

Signing and encrypting

What if you'd like to sign the message, while keeping the message available to Paul only? Just sign it as usual (see the diagram below) and then encrypt the message and the digest using Paul's public key. When Paul receives it, he uses his private key to decrypt it and then go on to verify the signature as usual.

Certificate and CA

This seems to work very well. However, when you need to say send a confidential message to Paul, you'll need his public key. But how can you find out his public key? You can call him on the phone to ask him. But how can you be sure that the person on the phone is really Paul? If he is a hacker, he will tell you his public key. When you send the message to Paul using the hacker's public key, the hacker will be able to decrypt it using his private key.

If you need to communicate with many different individuals, this will get even more troublesome. To solve the problem, Paul may go to a government authority, show his ID card and etc and tell the authority his public key. Then the authority will generate an electronic message (like an email) stating Paul's public key. Finally, it signs that message using its own private key.

Such a signed message is called a "certificate". That authority is called a "certificate authority (CA)".

Then Paul can put his certificate on his personal web site, email it to you directly or put it onto some 3rd party public web site. From where you get the certificate is unimportant. What is important is that if you can verify the signature of that CA and you trust what the CA says, then you can trust that public key in the certificate. In order to verify the signature, you will need the public key of that CA. What?! You're back to the origin of the problem. However, you only need to find out a single public key for a single entity (the CA), not a public key for everyone you need to communicate with. How to obtain that public key? Usually it is already configured in your browser or you can download it from a trusted web site, newspaper or other sources that you trust.

It means that in order to use asymmetric encryption and digital signature, people need private keys, public keys, a CA and certificates. All these elements combined together is called a "public key infrastructure (PKI)" because it provides a platform for us to use public keys.

Distinguished name

In a real certificate, usually the country, city and the company of that individual are also included like:

Performance issue with asymmetric encryption

Suppose that you'd like to send an encrypted message to Paul. You can use Paul's public key to do that. However, in practice few people would do it this way, because asymmetric encryption is very slow. In contrast, symmetric encryption is a lot faster. To solve this problem, you can generate a random symmetric key, use it to encrypt the message, then use Paul's public key to encrypt that symmetric key and send it to Paul along with the encrypted message. Paul can use his private key to get back the symmetric key and then use it to decrypt the message:

-- excerpted from Developing Web Services with Apache Axis2

By Kent Ka Iok Tong

By Kent Ka Iok Tong

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