public key infrastructure

What is Public Key Infrastructure (PKI)?

It’s impossible to overstate the value of digital security in the current online landscape. With hackers and cybercriminals maliciously holding data and websites hostage, organizations that maintain private records such as health data, financial data, and other sensitive information need to be proactive. It’s crucial that these organizations are aware of who is accessing their data and that they’re able to maintain a clear log.

One way to protect sensitive data is with a PKI or public key infrastructure. In this post, we’ll be covering what public key infrastructure is, why it matters, and how it can help protect you and your organization.

What is Public Key Infrastructure?

Public key infrastructure is how organizations institute and manage public key encryption. It is a crucial part of protecting information. 

Basically, PKI makes it possible to implement and manage the creation, issuance, validation, and revocation of various digital certificates. These digital certificates help verify that a person is who they say they are or that a device can use a particular network. 

Right now, as you are reading this on our website, you’ll notice that there’s a little lock next to the web address for this post. That lock lets you know that you are on a secure site. Your web browser has checked to see that we have a security certificate, like an SSL certificate. On certain web browsers, you can even click on the lock to learn more about the security certificate. This is important for protecting any data you may input into a form, like a credit card number or an email address. And it also showcases one of the most common forms of PKI. Digital signatures are another common use of PKI certificates.

The SSL certificate mentioned in our example was issued by a certificate authority (CA). A CA is an organization that verifies that a website or an individual is who they say they are. That way, you can trust that you are accessing a legitimate website. 

The 411 on Encryption

PKI is all based on the encryption of information. Using a key, data is coded so that it can only be understood with another key. This is generally done through symmetric-key encryption or asymmetric-key encryption.

Symmetric-key encryption requires that hardware have a particular key installed on it so that it can decode the encrypted data. Devices without the key will not be able to decode any encrypted data.

With asymmetric-key encryption, a public and private key are needed to encrypt and decrypt the information. The public key (in the form of a certificate) must be shared with the sender of the data so they will be able to encrypt it. The private key is used by the recipient in order to decrypt the data. The public key is public and can be accessed by anyone, however, the private key is just as described—private. The most common public key use case is one we’ve already mentioned—SSL certificates. This type of encryption is what is generally used with PKI. PKI ensures that public encryption keys are provided to the right devices. 

How is PKI Used?

As mentioned, PKI is used to secure websites. But that’s not all they do. 

PKI can be used to:

  • verify the identity of websites, services, email clients,  and software 
  • encrypt and decrypt data 
  • secure data online like form submissions and online sales
  • attach digital signatures to emails, documents, and software

At its simplest, PKI makes it possible to protect information and data and also authenticate it. Both of these are crucial for cyber security as well as data management. 

For example, let’s say you are a medical office. Having a PKI protocol could help you maintain HIPAA compliance and protect sensitive patient data. Digital signatures can help you determine whether files have been altered and when.

With proper security measures like the use of PKI as part of cyber security strategy, organizations don’t just protect themselves. They also protect their patients, clients, or customers. 

How Can PKI Help?

Let’s say that you run a small medical practice. How can PKI help you?

At its most basic, PKI does three things:

  1. It helps authenticate your website and your server
  2. It provides the certificate that allows encryption and decryption of data 
  3. It ensures that your data has not been tampered with

With PKI, website visitors and administrators can feel confident that your website is safe to use. This not only legitimizes your business, but it makes it possible to easily transmit information, schedule appointments, make payments, and more. Without a digital certificate authenticating your site, some web browsers will show a warning to site visitors telling them your website is unsafe. 

Within your network, you are likely sharing and sending private information that should be protected. With PKI, that data can be encrypted and then only accessed and decrypted by devices that have the correct key. Because so much of what we do is on computers, it’s important to be able to protect data from unauthorized use or individuals. PKI can help you limit who has access to what data, so you can have different levels of security based on employee roles.

When that data is accessed, how can you trust it? When transmitting documents, PKI can help guarantee that nothing has been compromised. You can check that unauthorized changes have not been made to things like medical records or other proprietary files.We understand that the complexities of PKI can be difficult to convey in a blog post. If you’d like to discuss how PKI can benefit your organization and which tools RealSec employs to protect your data, contact us today.