PKI 101 – Key pairs

Public Key Infrastructure, aka PKI, is a set of roles, procedures and policies used to manage digital certificates and public key encryption. The end goal is to provide a secure method of exchaning information between parties.

1. Public Key Cryptography

1.1 Symmetric Encryption

With symmetric encryption, the same key is used for both encryption and decryption. So if A wants to send B the raw message M, it will use the key K to generate the encrypted message E. When B receives the encrypted message E, it will use the same key K to decrypt it and it will get the raw message M.

As you can see, both A and B must have a shared key provided to both of them ahead of time. Hence the term usually used for this aproach: using a pre-shared key (or secret). It’s biggest flaw is that secure methods to share the key are hard to find or implement.

1.2 Asymmetric Encryption (PKC)

With asymmetric encryption, aka Public Key Cryptography (PKC), there is one key used in the encryption process and another key used in the decryption process. Therefore, we have a key-pair.

The two keys in the pair are called private-key and public-key. As the name suggests, a public-key can be shared with anyone but the private-key should only be known to the entitiy it belongs to.

The keys in the key-pair must have certain characteristics in order to be viable. This is done via a mathematical relationship between the private-key and the public-key. The most important characteristic of this relationship is that messages encrypted with the public-key can only be decrypted with the private-key. It doesn’t work the other way around and it is computationaly unfeasable to deduce the private-key from the public-key or other data exchanged between the parties. The method used to exchange the key information between parties is known as Diffie-Hellman and RSA (Rivest-Shamir-Adleman) is an implementation of this method.

The DH method is mostly used to secretly agree on a shared key between the parties envolved in a data exchange. Once the shared key is established, it is further used to encrypt the messages exchanged between parties because symmetric encryption is a much simpler process and through this method, it’s biggest flaw – sharing the secret – is addressed

1.2.1 Generating a Private Key using openssl

To create a Private Key using OpenSSL, use this command:

The passphrase is actually used for a symmetric encryption that adds a layer of protection for the private key.

Instead of

command you should use the newer and more versatile

command. It is meant to suport multiple key types, not just RSA but otherwise follows the same idea while bringin several improvements and more secure defaults.

When looking at an encrypted private key you should see that it includes information about the type of encryption that is used. That information is not present if the key is not protected.

To read the key from an encrypted file you can use:

1.2.2 Generating a Public Key using openssl

The same command can be used to generate a public key based on the private key:

1.2.3 Other methods of generating keys

OpenSSL is not the only tool used to generate keys but it is probably the most versatile.

One of them is ssh-keygen, described here:

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