Certificate and Registration Authorities
Methods of certification
Broadly speaking, there are three approaches to getting this trust: certificate authorities (CAs), web of trust (WoT), and simple public-key infrastructure (SPKI).
The primary role of the CA is to digitally sign and publish the public key bound to a given user. This is done using the CA's own private key, so that trust in the user key relies on one's trust in the validity of the CA's key. When the CA is a third-party separate from the user and the system, then it is called the Registration Authority (RA), which may or may not be separate from the CA. The key-user binding is established, depending on the level of assurance the binding has, by software or under human supervision.
The term trusted third party (TTP) may also be used for certificate authority (CA). Moreover, PKI is itself often used as a synonym for a CA implementation.
Temporary certificates & single sign-on
This approach involves a server that acts as an online certificate authority within a single sign-on system. A single sign-on server will issue digital certificates into the client system, but never stores them. Users can execute programs, etc. with the temporary certificate.
Web of trust
An alternative approach to the problem of public authentication of public-key information is the web of trust scheme, which uses self-signed certificates and third party attestations of those certificates. The singular term web of trust does not imply the existence of a single web of trust, or common point of trust, but rather one of any number of potentially disjoint "webs of trust". Examples of implementations of this approach are PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) and GnuPG (an implementation of OpenPGP, the standardized specification of PGP). Because PGP and implementations allow the use of e-mail digital signatures for self-publication of public-key information, it is relatively easy to implement one's own web of trust.
One of the benefits of the web of trust, such as in PGP, is that it can interoperate with a PKI CA fully trusted by all parties in a domain (such as an internal CA in a company) that is willing to guarantee certificates, as a trusted introducer. Only if the "web of trust" is completely trusted, and because of the nature of a web of trust, trusting one certificate is granting trust to all the certificates in that web. A PKI is only as valuable as the standards and practices that control the issuance of certificates and including PGP or a personally instituted web of trust could significantly degrade the trustability of that enterprise's or domain's implementation of PKI.
Simple public-key infrastructure
Another alternative, which does not deal with public authentication of public-key information, is the simple public-key infrastructure (SPKI) that grew out of three independent efforts to overcome the complexities of X.509 and PGP's web of trust. SPKI does not associate users with persons, since the key is what is trusted, rather than the person. SPKI does not use any notion of trust, as the verifier is also the issuer. This is called an "authorization loop" in SPKI terminology, where authorization is integral to its design.
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