Techniques for distributing public keys

Protocols involving public-key cryptography are typically described assuming a priori possession of (authentic) public keys of appropriate parties. This allows full generality among various options for acquiring such keys. Alternatives for distributing explicit public keys with guaranteed or verifiable authenticity, including public exponentials for Diffie-Hellman key agreement (or more generally, public parameters), include the following.

1. Point-to-point delivery> over a trusted channel. Authentic public keys of other users are obtained directly from the associated user by personal exchange, or over a direct channel, originating at that user, and which (procedurally) guarantees integrity and authenticity (e.g., a trusted courier or registered mail). This method is suitable if used infrequently (e.g., one-time user registration), or in small closed systems. A related method is to exchange public keys and associated information over an untrusted electronic channel, and provide authentication of this information by communicating a hash thereof (using a collision-resistant hash function) via an independent, lower- bandwidth authentic channel, such as a registered mail.

Drawbacks of this method include: inconvenience (elapsed time); the requirement of non-automated key acquisition prior to secured communications with each new party (chronological timing); and the cost of the trusted channel.

2. Direct access to a trusted public file (public-key registry’). A public database, the integrity of which is trusted, may be set up to contain the name and authentic public key of each system user. This may be implemented as a public-key registry operated by a trusted party. Users acquire keys directly from this registry.

While remote access to the registry over unsecured channels is acceptable against passive adversaries, a secure channel is required for remote access in the presence of active adversaries. One method of authenticating a public file is by tree authentication of public keys (§13.4.1).

3. Use of an on-line trusted sen’er. An on-line trusted server provides access to the equivalent of a public file storing authentic public keys, returning requested (individual) public keys in signed transmissions; confidentiality is not required. The requesting party possesses a copy of the server’s signature verification public key, allowing verification of the authenticity of such transmissions.

Disadvantages of this approach include: the trusted server must be on-line; the trusted server may become a bottleneck; and communications links must be established with both the intended communicant and the trusted server.

  • 4. Use of an off-line sen’er and certificates. In a one-time process, each party A contacts an off-line trusted party referred to as a certification authority’ (CA), to register its public key and obtain the C A’s signature verification public key (allowing verification of other users’ certificates). The CA certifies A’s public key by binding it to a string identifying A, thereby creating a certificate (§13.4.2). Parties obtain authentic public keys by exchanging certificates or extracting them from a public directory.
  • 5. Use of systems implicitly guaranteeing authenticity’ of public parameters. In such systems, including identity-based systems (§13.4.3) and those using implicitly certified keys (§13.4.4), by algorithmic design, modification of public parameters results in detectable, non-compromising failure of cryptographic techniques (see Remark 13.26).

The following subsections discuss the above techniques in greater detail. Figure 13.7 (page 564) provides a comparison of the certificate-based approach, identity-based systems, and the use of implicitly-certified public keys.

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