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Web Security, Privacy & Commerce, 2nd Edition by Gene Spafford, Simson Garfinkel

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Certification Authorities: Third-Party Registrars

A certification authority (CA) is any organization that issues digital certificates.

Any individual or organization can be a certification authority: being a CA simply means that the individual or organization signs certificates with a public key. A CA can impose standards before it signs a key; in the case of a university, it would probably verify that the key that it was about to sign really belonged to a bona fide student. Another CA might not have any standards at all. The world’s largest CA, VeriSign, issues several different kinds of certificates. VeriSign signs certificates under its VeriSign Trust Network (VTN) for public use; the company also issues certificates for use within corporations. The lowest level of certificates issued by VTN have no assurance; the highest levels come with the promise that VTN attempted to establish the identity of the key holder before the certificate was issued.

Conceptually, a CA’s certificate looks like a cryptographically signed index card. The certificates, signed by the certification authority’s own private key, contain the name of the CA, that CA’s public key, a serial number, and other information, as shown in Figure 7-7. To date, most certificates are a promise by the CA that a particular public key belongs to a particular individual or organization. But certificates can also be used for assertions. For example, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts could issue certificates saying that an ...

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