A Gentle Introduction to Asymmetric Encryption and SSL Certificates

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A Gentle Introduction to Asymmetric Encryption and SSL Certificates

In order to understand SSL certificates, we need to understand the fundamentals of asymmetric key establishment, an important feature in digital certificates.

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Introduction to Asymmetric Algorithms

Asymmetric key algorithms use two different keys at once -- a combination of a private key and a public key. The private key is known only to your host platform, while the public key is given by your host platform to any other device that wants to communicate securely with it.

The SSL protocol can use several types of asymmetric key algorithms, mainly RSA and ECCDH. RSA, an algorithm developed in 1977, is the most widely used algorithm. ECCDH is a newer technology that promises much faster processing at the same security level. ECC is short for Elliptic Curve Cryptography. We will not go into the details of how these two algorithms function. You can find plenty of information on the Internet that describes RSA and ECC.

The following diagram shows a typical RSA key exchange. Bob wants to send an encrypted message to Alice.

Asymmetric Encryption

Alice starts by sending her public key (A's public) to Bob so Bob can use the public key to encrypt a message. Bob uses Alice's public key and encrypts a message. The encrypted message is sent to Alice. Since only Alice has the private key, only Alice can decrypt the encrypted message. An eavesdropper will not be able to decode the encrypted message.

In addition to providing one-way asymmetric encryption, the asymmetric key encryption algorithm can also be used for signing messages. Signature management is simply the reverse of the one-way encryption.

Sending a Signed Messages

Alice wants to send a signed message to Bob. Alice encrypts the message by using her private key. The public key and the encrypted message are sent to Bob. Bob uses Alice's public key to decrypt the message. Alice's private key is only known to Alice so no one else can use her private key to encrypt a message. For this reason, the signature is deemed valid if the decryption on Bob's side is successful. Note: anyone receiving the message sent from Alice can decrypt the message so the asymmetric key encryption, when used for signing messages, does not provide any type of protection from, for example, eavesdropping. It's strictly used to verify the sender.

Although Bob decrypts the message and verifies that it comes from Alice, Bob has no electronic means of trusting Alice. If Bob and Alice had met in person prior to Alice sending the message, Alice could have physically given Bob her public key. Bob would then have been able to trust encrypted messages sent electronically from Alice. This is a fundamental problem with public key cryptography. The SSL protocol solves this problem by using a trusted third party. We will go more into using a third party when we explain how SSL certificates work.

There are a few limitations with asymmetric key encryption. The size of the data being encrypted cannot be larger than the key length. For example, an RSA key with length 1024 can theoretically not encrypt more than 1024 bits (128 bytes). The practical size is actually less than 128 bytes since the RSA encryption function requires some padding. Another limitation is the processing power required to perform the arithmetic.

Asymmetric encryption is therefore typically used to encrypt short messages such as a signature or exchanging the symmetric key used by the SSL protocol. A signature is typically a message digest that has been encrypted with the private key. A message digest is a hash of the data that requires a signature. The SSL protocol supports several hash algorithms, including MD5, SHA1, and SHA256.

In the following example, Alice wants to send a signed message to Bob:

Signed Message Data

  1. Alice calculates a message digest of the data.
  2. Alice encrypts the message digest using her private key.
  3. Alice sends the data, the encrypted message digest, and the public key to Bob.
  4. Bob decrypts the message digest using Alice's public key.
  5. Bob calculates his own message digest on the received data and verifies that his calculated digest matches the decrypted message digest received from Alice.

Signing messages is an important component of the SSL protocol as it makes it possible to provide trust management. A signature is a message digest encrypted with the subject's private key. The subject is Alice in the above example.

Introduction to Certificates

SSL provides trust management in addition to providing encrypted and private communication. Trust is provided by a known third party.

Alice wants to communicate with Bob, but before doing so she wants to know if Bob is trusted. The only way Alice can verify the identity of Bob is to use a well known trusted third party. In order to provide trust, Bob's public certificate must be signed by the same well-known third party. This third party is known as a Certificate Authority or CA for short. Your browser and/or host platform generally contains a list of well known CAs that it trusts. This list is pre-installed in your browser and/or host platform.

Certificate Components

In a typical SSL usage scenario, a server, in this case, Bob, is configured with a certificate containing a public key as well as a matching private key.

The public key is embedded inside the public certificate together with a number of other components that identifies Bob as the owner of the certificate. All data in the certificate is signed using the CA's private key.

As we previously explained, a signature is a message digest signed with a private key. The signature algorithm type is also embedded in the certificate. An example of a signature algorithm is sha1WithRSAEncryption. This means the message digest is calculated using SHA-1 and the message digest is signed using RSA.

If Alice has a copy of the CA's public key, she can validate Bob's certificate by decrypting the message digest using the CA's public key. The certificate is deemed valid if the decrypted message digest matches the digest Alice calculates from all the data in the certificate.

Alice starts by connecting to Bob. If Alice is a browser, and Bob is a server, then Alice connects to the domain name "Bob." The SSL/TLS handshake starts immediately after Alice successfully connects to Bob. Bob's public certificate is transferred to Alice during the TLS handshake phase.

Certificate Validation

Alice verifies that the certificate she received from Bob is valid by decrypting the message digest and by comparing the decrypted message digest with her own calculated message digest. The certificate is deemed valid if the two message digests match; however, she still does not trust Bob since she has not validated Bob's CA. Alice now uses the CA identification found in the received certificate and looks up the identity in her own CA list. Bob is trusted if Bob's CA is found in her own CA list. Alice will not trust Bob if Bob's CA is not found in Alice's CA list.

At this point, you may think that Alice trusts Bob, but there is one important security check that remains. At this point, Alice has verified that the certificate received from Bob is valid and signed by a CA found in her own CA list. However, a person performing a man in the middle attack could potentially send Alice another certificate signed with the same known CA. This is possible since the person performing the attack can have legally purchased a certificate from the CA. To prevent the man in the middle attack, Alice must make sure that the domain name "Bob", i.e. the server she connected to, matches the domain name found in the certificate. The domain name is part of Bob's identification and is embedded in the certificate. Alice can finally trust Bob if the domain name in the certificate matches "Bob."

In the above scenario, only Bob needed to provide his certificate's credentials. This is the typical use case for browser-to-server communication. For example, when you navigate to your bank, you want to make sure the browser helps you verify that the bank's website is trusted and that it is not hijacked by someone attempting to spoof you. The bank's server, Bob, also requires that Alice identifies herself, but this is typically done by logging into the site, not by using client SSL certificates for identification purposes.

encryption, security, ssl certificates

Published at DZone with permission of Wilfred Nilsen , DZone MVB. See the original article here.

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