Theory: Understanding Digital Certificates

One of the more annoying tasks in administering a publicly available website that uses HTTPS (Outlook Web App, for example) is certificate generation and installation. Anyone who has ordered a certificate from a major Certificate Authority (CA) like Godaddy or Network Solutions has dealt with the process. It goes something like this:

  1. Generate a Certificate Signing Request (CSR) on the web server
  2. Upload the CSR to a CA in a Certificate Request
  3. Wait for the CA to respond to your Request with a set of files
  4. Download the “Response” files
  5. Import the files on the Web Server

Once that gets done, you will (usually) have a valid certificate that allows the server to use SSL or TLS to encrypt communications with client machines.

Despite performing this process, you may be wondering *why* you have to go through this whole mess of annoyingness.

What is a Certificate

Put simply, a certificate is just a big hunk of data that is generated to provide clients and servers with the tools needed to properly encrypt and decrypt data. The most important tools included in a certificate is called a “Key”.

Just like a door key, the Key in a certificate is used to both prevent unauthorized access and allow authorized access. The keys in a certificate are generally used to encrypt data and then decrypt the data.

What Keys?

When you go through the certificate generation process above, you are generating two different, but mathematically related, keys; a Public Key and a Private Key. The public key is used to decrypt data, but cannot be used to decrypt the data it encrypts. The private key is able to decrypt data encrypted by the public key and must be kept as securely as possible.

If you were to look at a certificate file, you would be able to see the public key without any issues. You could even take the public key and use it to encrypt some data. However, the only way that data could be decrypted is if you have access to the private key. The private key is usually stored securely, and can only be accessed with specific authorization. If you gain physical access to a web server (or remote access to the GUI/Command line of the OS running the web server), you can gain access to the private key, but that usually requires a level of access unavailable to the majority of people.

Now, you may be wondering, “If the data can be encrypted by anyone, how do I ensure the data getting to the client machine is actually coming from the original server?” And If you weren’t already, you probably are now. Well, to make sure the sending server is authentic we have to authenticate it. That’s where another part of the digital certificate comes into play.

Authentication

When you generate a certificate, you have to enter a common name for the certificate. The common name should match the name that is used to access the server. If anyone attempts to access the server using something other than what is defined by the common name, a certificate error is usually displayed. For an example of a certificate error, see below:

whatever error

This particular error was generated by changing the hosts file of my desktop to point http://www.whatever.com to a website running SSL (Facebook, if you’re wondering). Had I accessed the website using a URL that matched the common name listed on the certificate, I would not have received this error. In essence, I’ve attempted to access the site using a name that can’t be authenticated, so I can’t absolutely ensure that the data I’m getting hasn’t been intercepted, decrypted, modified, and re-encrypted.

“So, if anyone can encrypt data using the public key that anyone can get a hold of, can’t I just create a certificate that has the same common name and use that to authenticate a rogue server?” Well, no. Because there’s another part of the certificate that keeps this from happening.

The Circle of Trust

The primary role of the Certificate Authority in the certificate generation process is to verify that the certificates that get generated are only generated for servers that actually belong to the entity that runs the server. In addition, the CA has to be trusted by the computer accessing the information encrypted by the certificate.

Most Operating Systems and Web Browsers are configured to trust a number of CAs right out of the box. Companies like GoDaddy and Network Solutions have contracts with Microsoft, Apple, and other OS developers to have their Root CA Certificates trusted by default. The Root CA Certificate is used to generate all certificates obtained from the CA defined by the Root CA Certificate.

Now, it’s possible to create your own CA that will generate certificates, but because your CA’s Root Certificate is not automatically trusted by client computers around the world, those computers will generate a certificate error any time they access a certificate generated by your CA until the Root CA Certificate for your CA is installed as a trusted Root CA Certificate.

This trust relationship makes it extremely difficult to interject a rogue system between a client and server to read data because the rogue system can’t have a copy of the certificate generally used to access the server, and any system that tries to talk to the server with that rogue system in the mix will squawk like a parrot because there’s a server authentication problem.

Review

So the breakdown of the whole certificate system is this,

  • Certificates hold the keys used to encrypt and decrypt data
  • Certificates are used to verify that the source of encrypted data is authentic
  • Certificates should be generated by trusted certificate authorities.

Now, it’s entirely possible to have a web server ignore some part of the system (a server can use a self-signed certificate, for instance), but such a server will be significantly less secure than one that follows the rules.

Most modern methods for accessing web servers make it extremely inconvenient to access a server that doesn’t follow the rules, and that means your users end up wasting a little bit of time whenever they access your site. In the IT business, time is a very scarce commodity, and every little bit wasted can add up to giant problems. So make sure your server is following the rules!

 

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2 responses to “Theory: Understanding Digital Certificates

  1. Pingback: Welcome! | AC Brown's IT World

  2. Pingback: Anatomy of a Certificate Error | AC Brown's IT World

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