Private communication on the Internet depends upon the ability to prevent anyone except the intended recipient from being able to read a message—even though anyone on the network might be able to intercept it.
The need for privacy and authentication over nonsecure networks requires some form of data encryption and decryption, otherwise known as cryptography, as part of a software security system. Cryptographic protocols employing certificates are designed to address these needs.
When a message is encrypted, an encryption key is used. To decrypt the message, the corresponding decryption key must be used. It is very important to properly restrict access to the decryption key because anyone who possesses it will be able to decrypt all messages that were encrypted with the matching encryption key.
Encryption is the process of scrambling information by applying a mathematical function in such a way that it is extremely difficult for anyone other than an intended recipient to retrieve the original information. Central to this process is a mathematical value, called a key, used to scramble the information in a unique and complex way.
Your Web server uses essentially the same encryption process to secure communication links with users. After establishing a secure link, a special session key is used by both your Web server and the user’s Web browser to both encrypt and decrypt information. For example, when an authenticated user attempts to download a file from a Web site requiring a secure channel, your Web server uses a session key to encrypt the file and related HTTP headers. After receiving the encrypted file, the Web browser then uses a copy of the same session key to recover the file.
This method of encryption, although secure, has an inherent drawback. During the process of creating a secure link, a copy of the session key might be transmitted across an unsecured network. Therefore, a computer vandal intent on compromising the link need only intercept and steal the session key. To safeguard against this possibility, your Web server implements an additional method of encryption.
The use of digital signatures and envelopes assumes that the identity of the owner of the public key used to encrypt or decrypt a message is established beyond doubt.
A digital certificate is a set of data that completely identifies an entity, and is issued by a Certificate Authority (CA) only after that authority has verified the entity’s identity. The data set includes the public cryptographic key tendered to the entity. When the sender of a message signs the message with his or her private key, the recipient of the message can use the sender’s public key to verify that the sender is legitimate. The recipient retrieves the sender’s public key from the certificate either sent with the message or available elsewhere in the directory service.
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