Implementing a Public Key Infrastructure

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A Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) is a group of technologies used to request, create, manage, store, distribute, and revoke digital certificates. If you’re planning to take the SY0-401 or  SY0-501 Security+ exam, you should have a basic understanding of PKI concepts.

For example, can you answer this question?

Q. An organization hosts several web servers in a web farm used for e-commerce. Due to recent attacks, management is concerned that attackers might try to redirect web site traffic, allowing the attackers to impersonate their e-commerce site. Which of the following methods will address this issue?

A. Stapling

B. Perfect forward secrecy

C. Pinning

D. Key stretching

More, do you know why the correct answer is correct and the incorrect answers are incorrect? The answer and explanation is available at the end of this post.

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A primary benefit of a PKI is that it allows two people or entities to communicate securely without knowing each other previously. In other words, it allows them to communicate securely through an insecure public medium such as the Internet.

For example, you can establish a secure session with Amazon.com even if you’ve never done so before. Amazon purchased a certificate from Symantec.

Public Key Pinning

Public key pinning is a security mechanism designed to prevent attackers from impersonating a web site using fraudulent certificates. When configured on a web site server, the server responds to client HTTPS requests with an extra header. This extra header includes a list of hashes derived from valid public keys used by the web site. It also includes a max-age field specifying how long the client should store and use the data.

When clients connect to the same web site again, they recalculate the hashes and then compare the recalculated hashes with the stored hashes. If the hashes match, it verifies that the client is connected to the same web site.

Implementing Public Key Infrastructure

Web site administrators create hashes of one or more certificates used by the web site. This can be the public key used by the web site’s certificate. It can also include any public keys from certificates in the certificate chain such as the public key from the root CA certificate, and/or the public key from intermediate CA certificates. Last, it must include a backup key that can be used if the current key becomes invalid.

Remember this

Certificate stapling is an alternative to OCSP. The certificate presenter (such as a web server) appends the certificate with a timestamped digitally signed OCSP response from the CA. This reduces OCSP traffic to and from the CA. Public key pinning helps prevent attackers from impersonating a web site with a fraudulent certificate. The web server sends a list of public key hashes that clients can use to validate certificates sent to clients in subsequent sessions.

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Key Escrow

Key escrow is the process of placing a copy of a private key in a safe environment. This is useful for recovery. If the original is lost, the organization retrieves the copy of the key to access the data. Key escrow isn’t required, but if an organization determines that data loss is unacceptable, it will implement a key escrow process.

In some cases, an organization provides a copy of the key to a third party. Another method is to designate employees within the organization who will be responsible for key escrow. These employees maintain and protect copies of the key, and if the original key is lost, they check out a copy of the key to an administrator or user.

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Recovery Agent

A key recovery agent is a designated individual who can recover or restore cryptographic keys. In the context of a PKI, a recovery agent can recover private keys to access encrypted data. The recovery agent may be a security professional, administrator, or anyone designated by the company.

In some cases, the recovery agent can recover encrypted data using a different key. For example, Microsoft BitLocker supports encryption of entire drives. It’s possible to add a data recovery agent field when creating a BitLocker encrypted drive. In this case, BitLocker uses two keys. The user has one key and uses it to unlock the drive during day-to-day use. The second key is only accessible by the recovery agent and is used for recovery purposes if the original key is lost or becomes inaccessible.


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Q. An organization hosts several web servers in a web farm used for e-commerce. Due to recent attacks, management is concerned that attackers might try to redirect web site traffic, allowing the attackers to impersonate their e-commerce site. Which of the following methods will address this issue?

A. Stapling

B. Perfect forward secrecy

C. Pinning

D. Key stretching

Answer is C. Public key pinning provides clients with a list of public key hashes that clients can use to detect web site impersonation attempts.

Stapling reduces Online Certificate Status Protocol (OCSP) traffic by appending a timestamped, digitally signed OCSP response to a certificate.

Perfect forward secrecy ensures that the compromise of a long-term key does not compromise keys used in the past.

Key stretching techniques add additional bits (salts) to passwords, making them harder to crack.

See Chapter 10 of the CompTIA Security+: Get Certified Get Ahead: SY0-501 Study Guide

or

Chapter 10 of the CompTIA Security+: Get Certified Get Ahead: SY0-401 Study Guide

for more information on cryptography and PKI concepts.

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