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Secure Programming Cookbook for C and C++ by Matt Messier, John Viega

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7.16. Representing Public Keys and Certificates in Binary (DER Encoding)

Problem

You want to represent a digital certificate or some other cryptographic primitive in a standard binary format, either for signing or for storing to disk.

Solution

There is an industry-standard way to represent cryptographic objects in binary, but it isn’t very pretty at all. (You need to use this standard if you want to programmatically sign an X.509 certificate in a portable way.) We strongly recommend sticking to standard APIs for encoding and decoding instead of writing your own encoding and decoding routines.

When storing data on disk, you may want to use a password to encrypt the DER-encoded representation, as discussed in Recipe 4.10.

Discussion

ASN.1 is a language for specifying the fields a data object must contain. It’s similar in purpose to XML (which it predates). Cryptographers use ASN.1 extensively for defining precise descriptions of data. For example, the definition of X.509 certificates is specified in the language. If you look at that specification, you can clearly see which parts of the certificate are optional and which are required, and see important properties of all of the fields.

ASN.1 is supposed to be a high-level specification of data. By that, we mean that there could be a large number of ways to translate ASN.1 data objects into a binary representation. That is, data may be represented however you want it to be internal to your applications, but if you want to exchange data ...

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