Public key infrastructure (PKI) is the system of digital certificates, certification authorities, tools, systems, and hardware that are used to deploy public key technology.
The word “public” in PKI has had an ambiguous history. Many of the early proponents of PKI envisioned a single PKI, operated by or for the government, which would provide state-certified certificates. In one vision, each person in the United States would be issued a certificate. These certificates could be used for digitally signing tax returns, for conducting online business, and for other official purposes. As acceptance increased, it was envisioned that PKI certificates would become the electronic equivalent of driver’s licenses.
The public PKI was a grand vision, but so far it hasn’t happened. Companies such as VeriSign have issued millions of certificates to verify the identity of individuals and organizations, and the keys to sign these certificates have been widely distributed. Some of these so-called trust hierarchies , such as the trust hierarchy used to certify web server certificates, are used by more than a hundred million people. But they are run by private businesses, and not by governments. The word “public” in PKI refers to public keys, rather than to the public at large.
To understand the issues involved in PKI today, it’s helpful to look back at how we got where we are today.
When Netscape Communications started business in 1995, ...