PKI as nature intended

Few technologies are so fundamental and yet so derided at the same time as public key infrastructure. PKI is widely thought of as obsolete or generically intrusive yet it is ubiquitous in SIM cards, SSL, chip and PIN cards, and cable TV. Technically, public key infrastructure Is a generic term for a management system for keys and certificates; there have always been endless ways to build PKIs (note the plural) for different communities, technologies, industries and outcomes. And yet “PKI” has all too often come to mean just one way of doing identity management. In fact, PKI doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with identity at all.

This blog is an edited version of a feature I once wrote for SC Magazine. It is timely in the present day to re-visit the principles that make for good PKI implementations and contextualise them in one of the most contemporary instances of PKI: the FIDO Alliance protocols for secure attribute management. In my view, FIDO realises PKI ‘as nature intended’.

“Re-thinking PKI”

In their earliest conceptions in the early-to-mid 1990s, digital certificates were proposed to authenticate nondescript transactions between parties who had never met. Certificates were construed as the sole means for people to authenticate one another. Most traditional PKI was formulated with no other context; the digital certificate was envisaged to be your all-purpose digital identity.

Orthodox PKI has come in for spirited criticism. From the early noughties, many commentators pointed to a stark paradox: online transaction volumes and values were increasing rapidly, in almost all cases without the help of overt PKI. Once thought to be essential, with its promise of “non repdudiation”, PKI seemed anything but, even for significant financial transactions.

There were many practical problems in “big” centralised PKI models. The traditional proof of identity for general purpose certificates was intrusive; the legal agreements were complex and novel; and private key management was difficult for lay people. So the one-size-fits-all electronic passport failed to take off. But PKI’s critics sometimes throw the baby out with the bathwater.
In the absence of any specific context for its application, “big” PKI emphasized proof of personal identity. Early certificate registration schemes co-opted identification benchmarks like that of the passport. Yet hardly any regular business transactions require parties to personally identify one another to passport standards.

”Electronic business cards”

Instead in business we deal with others routinely on the basis of their affiliations, agency relationships, professional credentials and so on. The requirement for orthodox PKI users to submit to strenuous personal identity checks over and above their established business credentials was a major obstacle in the adoption of digital certificates.

It turns out that the ‘killer applications’ for PKI overwhelmingly involve transactions with narrow contexts, predicated on specific credentials. The parties might not know each other personally, but invariably they recognize and anticipate each other’s qualifications, as befitting their business relationship.

Successful PKI came to be characterized by closed communities of interest, prior out-of-band registration of members, and in many cases, special-purpose application software featuring additional layers of context, security and access controls.

So digital certificates are much more useful when implemented as application-specific ‘electronic business cards,’ than as one-size-fits-all electronic passports. And, by taking account of the special conditions that apply to different e-business processes, we have the opportunity to greatly simplify the registration processes, user experience and liability arrangements that go with PKI.

The real benefits of digital signatures

There is a range of potential advantages in using PKI, including its cryptographic strength and resistance to identity theft (when implemented with private keys in hardware). Many of its benefits are shared with other technologies, but at least two are unique to PKI.

First, digital signatures provide robust evidence of the origin and integrity of electronic transactions, persistent over time and over ‘distance’ (that is, the separation of sender and receiver). This greatly simplifies audit logging, evidence collection and dispute resolution, and cuts the future cost of investigation and fraud. If a digitally signed document is archived and checked at a later date, the quality of the signature remains undiminished over many years, even if the public key certificate has long since expired. And if a digitally signed message is passed from one relying party to another and on to many more, passing through all manner of intermediate systems, everyone still receives an identical, verifiable signature code authenticating the original message.

Electronic evidence of the origin and integrity of a message can, of course, be provided by means other than a digital signature. For example, the authenticity of typical e-business transactions can usually be demonstrated after the fact via audit logs, which indicate how a given message was created and how it moved from one machine to another. However, the quality of audit logs is highly variable and it is costly to produce legally robust evidence from them. Audit logs are not always properly archived from every machine, they do not always directly evince data integrity, and they are not always readily available months or years after the event. They are rarely secure in themselves, and they usually need specialists to interpret and verify them. Digital signatures on the other hand make it vastly simpler to rewind transactions when required.

Secondly, digital signatures and certificates are machine readable, allowing the credentials or affiliations of the sender to be bound to the message and verified automatically on receipt, enabling totally paperless transacting. This is an important but often overlooked benefit of digital signatures. When processing a digital certificate chain, relying party software can automatically tell that:

    One reason we can forget about the importance of machine readability is that we have probably come to expect person-to-person email to be the archetypal PKI application, thanks to email being the classic example to illustrate PKI in action. There is an implicit suggestion in most PKI marketing and training that, in regular use, we should manually click on a digital signature icon, examine the certificate, check which CA issued it, read the policy qualifier, and so on. Yet the overwhelming experience of PKI in practice is that it suits special purpose and highly automated applications, where the usual receiver of signed transactions is in fact a computer.

    Characterising good applications

    Reviewing the basic benefits of digital signatures allows us to characterize the types of e-business applications that merit investment in PKI.

    Applications for which digital signatures are a good fit tend to have reasonably high transaction volumes, fully automatic or straight-through processing, and multiple recipients or multiple intermediaries between sender and receiver. In addition, there may be significant risk of dispute or legal ramifications, necessitating high quality evidence to be retained over long periods of time. These include:

      This view of the technology helps to explain why many first-generation applications of PKI were problematic. Retail internet banking is a well-known example of e-business which flourished without the need for digital certificates. A few banks did try to implement certificates, but generally found them difficult to use. Most later reverted to more conventional access control and backend security mechanisms.Yet with hindsight, retail funds transfer transactions did not have an urgent need for PKI, since they could make use of existing backend payment systems. Funds transfer is characterized by tightly closed arrangements, a single relying party, built-in limits on the size of each transaction, and near real-time settlement. A threat and risk assessment would show that access to internet banking can rest on simple password authentication, in exactly the same way as antecedent phone banking schemes.

      Trading complexity for specificity

      As discussed, orthodox PKI was formulated with the tacit assumption that there is no specific context for the transaction, so the digital certificate is the sole means for authenticating the sender. Consequently, the traditional schemes emphasized high standards of personal identity, exhaustive contracts and unusual legal devices like Relying Party Agreements. They also often resorted to arbitrary ‘reliance limits,’ which have little meaning for most of the applications listed on the previous page. Notoriously, traditional PKI requires users to read and understand certification practice statements (CPS).

      All that overhead stemmed from not knowing what the general-purpose digital certificate was going to be used for. On the other hand, if particular digital certificates are constrained to defined applications, then the complexity surrounding their specific usage can be radically reduced.

      The role of PKI in all contemporary ‘killer applications’ is fundamentally to help automate the online processing of electronic transactions between parties with well-defined credentials. This is in stark contrast to the way PKI has historically been portrayed, where strangers Alice and Bob use their digital certificates to authenticate context-free general messages, often presumed to be sent by email. In reality, serious business messages are never sent stranger-to-stranger with no context or cues as to the parties’ legitimacy.

      Using generic email is like sending a fax on plain paper. Instead, business messaging is usually highly structured. Parties have an expectation that only certain types of transactions are going to occur between them and they equip themselves accordingly (for instance, a health insurance office is not set up to handle tax returns). The sender is authorized to act in defined types of transactions by virtue of professional credentials, a relevant license, an affiliation with some authority, endorsement by their employer, and so on. And the receiver recognizes the source of those credentials. The sender and receiver typically use prescribed forms and/or special purpose application software with associated user agreements and license conditions, adding context and additional layers of security around the transaction.

      PKI got smart

      When PKI is used to help automate the online processing of transactions between parties in the context of an existing business relationship, we should expect the legal arrangements between the parties to still apply. For business applications where digital certificates are used to identify users in specific contexts, the question of legal liability should be vastly simpler than it is in the general purpose PKI scenario where the issuer does not know what the certificates might be used for.
      The new vision for PKI means the technology and processes should be no more of a burden on the user than a bank card. Rather than imagine that all public key certificates are like general purpose electronic passports, we can deploy multiple, special purpose certificates, and treat them more like electronic business cards. A public key certificate issued on behalf of a community of business users and constrained to that community can thereby stand for any type of professional credential or affiliation.

      We can now automate and embed the complex cryptography deeply into smart devices — smartcards, smart phones, USB keys and so on — so that all terms and conditions for use are application focused. As far as users are concerned, a smartcard can be deployed in exactly the same way as any magnetic stripe card, without any need to refer to – or be limited by – the complex technology contained within (see also Simpler PKI is on the cards). Any application-specific smartcard can be issued under rules and controls that are fit for their purpose, as determined by the community of users or an appropriate recognized authority. There is no need for any user to read a CPS. Communities can determine their own evidence-of-identity requirements for issuing cards, instead of externally imposed personal identity checks. Deregulating membership rules dramatically cuts the overheads traditionally associated with certificate registration.

      Finally, if we constrain the use of certificates to particular applications then we can factor the intended usage into PKI accreditation processes. Accreditation could then allow for particular PKI scheme rules to govern liability. By ‘black-boxing’ each community’s rules and arrangements, and empowering the community to implement processes that are fit for its purpose, the legal aspects of accreditation can be simplified, reducing one of the more significant cost components of the whole PKI exercise (having said that, it never ceases to amaze how many contemporary healthcare PKIs still cling onto face-to-face passport grade ID proofing as if that’s the only way to do digital certificates).

      Fast forward

      The preceding piece is a lightly edited version of the article ”Rethinking PKI” that first appeared in Secure Computing Magazine in 2003. Now, over a decade later, we’re seeing the same principles realised by the FIDO Alliance.

      The FIDO protocols U2F and UAF enable specific attributes of a user and their smart devices to be transmitted to a server. Inherent to the FIDO methods are digital certificates that confer attributes and not identity, relatively large numbers of private keys stored locally in the users’ devices (and without the users needing to be aware of them as such) and digital signatures automatically applied to protocol messages to bind the relevant attributes to the authentication exchanges.

      Surely, this is how PKI should have been deployed all along.