2<- index


3 Overview of Approach

Following is a simplified view of the architectural model assumed by the PKIX specifications.

The components in this model are:

end entity: user of PKI certificates and/or end user system that is the subject of a certificate; CA: certification authority; RA: registration authority, i.e., an optional system to which a CA delegates certain management functions; CRL issuer: an optional system to which a CA delegates the publication of certificate revocation lists; repository: a system or collection of distributed systems that stores certificates and CRLs and serves as a means of distributing these certificates and CRLs to end entities.

Note that an Attribute Authority (AA) might also choose to delegate the publication of CRLs to a CRL issuer.

   +---+
   | C |                       +------------+
   | e | <-------------------->| End entity |
   | r |       Operational     +------------+
   | t |       transactions          ^
   | i |      and management         |  Management
   | f |       transactions          |  transactions        PKI
   | i |                             |                     users
   | c |                             v
   | a | =======================  +--+------------+  ==============
   | t |                          ^               ^
   | e |                          |               |         PKI
   |   |                          v               |      management
   | & |                       +------+           |       entities
   |   | <---------------------|  RA  |<----+     |
   | C |  Publish certificate  +------+     |     |
   | R |                                    |     |
   | L |                                    |     |
   |   |                                    v     v
   | R |                                +------------+
   | e | <------------------------------|     CA     |
   | p |   Publish certificate          +------------+
   | o |   Publish CRL                     ^      ^
   | s |                                   |      |  Management
   | i |                +------------+     |      |  transactions
   | t | <--------------| CRL Issuer |<----+      |
   | o |   Publish CRL  +------------+            v
   | r |                                      +------+
   | y |                                      |  CA  |
   +---+                                      +------+

Figure 1 - PKI Entities

3.1 X.509 Version 3 Certificate

Users of a public key require confidence that the associated private key is owned by the correct remote subject (person or system) with which an encryption or digital signature mechanism will be used. This confidence is obtained through the use of public key certificates, which are data structures that bind public key values to subjects. The binding is asserted by having a trusted CA digitally sign each certificate. The CA may base this assertion upon technical means (a.k.a., proof of possession through a challenge- response protocol), presentation of the private key, or on an assertion by the subject. A certificate has a limited valid lifetime which is indicated in its signed contents. Because a certificate's signature and timeliness can be independently checked by a certificate-using client, certificates can be distributed via untrusted communications and server systems, and can be cached in unsecured storage in certificate-using systems.

ITU-T X.509 (formerly CCITT X.509) or ISO/IEC 9594-8, which was first published in 1988 as part of the X.500 Directory recommendations, defines a standard certificate format [X.509]. The certificate format in the 1988 standard is called the version 1 (v1) format. When X.500 was revised in 1993, two more fields were added, resulting in the version 2 (v2) format.

The Internet Privacy Enhanced Mail (PEM) RFCs, published in 1993, include specifications for a public key infrastructure based on X.509 v1 certificates [RFC 1422]. The experience gained in attempts to deploy RFC 1422 made it clear that the v1 and v2 certificate formats are deficient in several respects. Most importantly, more fields were needed to carry information which PEM design and implementation experience had proven necessary. In response to these new requirements, ISO/IEC, ITU-T and ANSI X9 developed the X.509 version 3 (v3) certificate format. The v3 format extends the v2 format by adding provision for additional extension fields. Particular extension field types may be specified in standards or may be defined and registered by any organization or community. In June 1996, standardization of the basic v3 format was completed [X.509].

ISO/IEC, ITU-T, and ANSI X9 have also developed standard extensions for use in the v3 extensions field [X.509][X9.55]. These extensions can convey such data as additional subject identification information, key attribute information, policy information, and certification path constraints.

However, the ISO/IEC, ITU-T, and ANSI X9 standard extensions are very broad in their applicability. In order to develop interoperable implementations of X.509 v3 systems for Internet use, it is necessary to specify a profile for use of the X.509 v3 extensions tailored for the Internet. It is one goal of this document to specify a profile for Internet WWW, electronic mail, and IPsec applications. Environments with additional requirements may build on this profile or may replace it.

3.2 Certification Paths and Trust

A user of a security service requiring knowledge of a public key generally needs to obtain and validate a certificate containing the required public key. If the public key user does not already hold an assured copy of the public key of the CA that signed the certificate, the CA's name, and related information (such as the validity period or name constraints), then it might need an additional certificate to obtain that public key. In general, a chain of multiple certificates may be needed, comprising a certificate of the public key owner (the end entity) signed by one CA, and zero or more additional certificates of CAs signed by other CAs. Such chains, called certification paths, are required because a public key user is only initialized with a limited number of assured CA public keys.

There are different ways in which CAs might be configured in order for public key users to be able to find certification paths. For PEM, RFC 1422 defined a rigid hierarchical structure of CAs. There are three types of PEM certification authority:

(a) Internet Policy Registration Authority (IPRA): This authority, operated under the auspices of the Internet Society, acts as the root of the PEM certification hierarchy at level 1. It issues certificates only for the next level of authorities, PCAs. All certification paths start with the IPRA.

(b) Policy Certification Authorities (PCAs): PCAs are at level 2 of the hierarchy, each PCA being certified by the IPRA. A PCA shall establish and publish a statement of its policy with respect to certifying users or subordinate certification authorities. Distinct PCAs aim to satisfy different user needs. For example, one PCA (an organizational PCA) might support the general electronic mail needs of commercial organizations, and another PCA (a high-assurance PCA) might have a more stringent policy designed for satisfying legally binding digital signature requirements.

(c) Certification Authorities (CAs): CAs are at level 3 of the hierarchy and can also be at lower levels. Those at level 3 are certified by PCAs. CAs represent, for example, particular organizations, particular organizational units (e.g., departments, groups, sections), or particular geographical areas.

RFC 1422 furthermore has a name subordination rule which requires that a CA can only issue certificates for entities whose names are subordinate (in the X.500 naming tree) to the name of the CA itself. The trust associated with a PEM certification path is implied by the PCA name. The name subordination rule ensures that CAs below the PCA are sensibly constrained as to the set of subordinate entities they can certify (e.g., a CA for an organization can only certify entities in that organization's name tree). Certificate user systems are able to mechanically check that the name subordination rule has been followed.

The RFC 1422 uses the X.509 v1 certificate formats. The limitations of X.509 v1 required imposition of several structural restrictions to clearly associate policy information or restrict the utility of certificates. These restrictions included:

(a) a pure top-down hierarchy, with all certification paths starting from IPRA;

(b) a naming subordination rule restricting the names of a CA's subjects; and

(c) use of the PCA concept, which requires knowledge of individual PCAs to be built into certificate chain verification logic. Knowledge of individual PCAs was required to determine if a chain could be accepted.

With X.509 v3, most of the requirements addressed by RFC 1422 can be addressed using certificate extensions, without a need to restrict the CA structures used. In particular, the certificate extensions relating to certificate policies obviate the need for PCAs and the constraint extensions obviate the need for the name subordination rule. As a result, this document supports a more flexible architecture, including:

(a) Certification paths start with a public key of a CA in a user's own domain, or with the public key of the top of a hierarchy. Starting with the public key of a CA in a user's own domain has certain advantages. In some environments, the local domain is the most trusted.

(b) Name constraints may be imposed through explicit inclusion of a name constraints extension in a certificate, but are not required.

(c) Policy extensions and policy mappings replace the PCA concept, which permits a greater degree of automation. The application can determine if the certification path is acceptable based on the contents of the certificates instead of a priori knowledge of PCAs. This permits automation of certification path processing.

3.3 Revocation

When a certificate is issued, it is expected to be in use for its entire validity period. However, various circumstances may cause a certificate to become invalid prior to the expiration of the validity period. Such circumstances include change of name, change of association between subject and CA (e.g., an employee terminates employment with an organization), and compromise or suspected compromise of the corresponding private key. Under such circumstances, the CA needs to revoke the certificate.

X.509 defines one method of certificate revocation. This method involves each CA periodically issuing a signed data structure called a certificate revocation list (CRL). A CRL is a time stamped list identifying revoked certificates which is signed by a CA or CRL issuer and made freely available in a public repository. Each revoked certificate is identified in a CRL by its certificate serial number. When a certificate-using system uses a certificate (e.g., for verifying a remote user's digital signature), that system not only checks the certificate signature and validity but also acquires a suitably-recent CRL and checks that the certificate serial number is not on that CRL. The meaning of "suitably-recent" may vary with local policy, but it usually means the most recently-issued CRL. A new CRL is issued on a regular periodic basis (e.g., hourly, daily, or weekly). An entry is added to the CRL as part of the next update following notification of revocation. An entry MUST NOT be removed from the CRL until it appears on one regularly scheduled CRL issued beyond the revoked certificate's validity period.

An advantage of this revocation method is that CRLs may be distributed by exactly the same means as certificates themselves, namely, via untrusted servers and untrusted communications.

One limitation of the CRL revocation method, using untrusted communications and servers, is that the time granularity of revocation is limited to the CRL issue period. For example, if a revocation is reported now, that revocation will not be reliably notified to certificate-using systems until all currently issued CRLs are updated -- this may be up to one hour, one day, or one week depending on the frequency that CRLs are issued.

As with the X.509 v3 certificate format, in order to facilitate interoperable implementations from multiple vendors, the X.509 v2 CRL format needs to be profiled for Internet use. It is one goal of this document to specify that profile. However, this profile does not require the issuance of CRLs. Message formats and protocols supporting on-line revocation notification are defined in other PKIX specifications. On-line methods of revocation notification may be applicable in some environments as an alternative to the X.509 CRL. On-line revocation checking may significantly reduce the latency between a revocation report and the distribution of the information to relying parties. Once the CA accepts a revocation report as authentic and valid, any query to the on-line service will correctly reflect the certificate validation impacts of the revocation. However, these methods impose new security requirements: the certificate validator needs to trust the on-line validation service while the repository does not need to be trusted.

3.4 Operational Protocols

Operational protocols are required to deliver certificates and CRLs (or status information) to certificate using client systems. Provisions are needed for a variety of different means of certificate and CRL delivery, including distribution procedures based on LDAP, HTTP, FTP, and X.500. Operational protocols supporting these functions are defined in other PKIX specifications. These specifications may include definitions of message formats and procedures for supporting all of the above operational environments, including definitions of or references to appropriate MIME content types.

3.5 Management Protocols

Management protocols are required to support on-line interactions between PKI user and management entities. For example, a management protocol might be used between a CA and a client system with which a key pair is associated, or between two CAs which cross-certify each other. The set of functions which potentially need to be supported by management protocols include:

(a) registration: This is the process whereby a user first makes itself known to a CA (directly, or through an RA), prior to that CA issuing a certificate or certificates for that user.

(b) initialization: Before a client system can operate securely it is necessary to install key materials which have the appropriate relationship with keys stored elsewhere in the infrastructure. For example, the client needs to be securely initialized with the public key and other assured information of the trusted CA(s), to be used in validating certificate paths.

Furthermore, a client typically needs to be initialized with its own key pair(s).

(c) certification: This is the process in which a CA issues a certificate for a user's public key, and returns that certificate to the user's client system and/or posts that certificate in a repository.

(d) key pair recovery: As an option, user client key materials (e.g., a user's private key used for encryption purposes) may be backed up by a CA or a key backup system. If a user needs to recover these backed up key materials (e.g., as a result of a forgotten password or a lost key chain file), an on-line protocol exchange may be needed to support such recovery.

(e) key pair update: All key pairs need to be updated regularly, i.e., replaced with a new key pair, and new certificates issued.

(f) revocation request: An authorized person advises a CA of an abnormal situation requiring certificate revocation.

(g) cross-certification: Two CAs exchange information used in establishing a cross-certificate. A cross-certificate is a certificate issued by one CA to another CA which contains a CA signature key used for issuing certificates.

Note that on-line protocols are not the only way of implementing the above functions. For all functions there are off-line methods of achieving the same result, and this specification does not mandate use of on-line protocols. For example, when hardware tokens are used, many of the functions may be achieved as part of the physical token delivery. Furthermore, some of the above functions may be combined into one protocol exchange. In particular, two or more of the registration, initialization, and certification functions can be combined into one protocol exchange.

The PKIX series of specifications defines a set of standard message formats supporting the above functions. The protocols for conveying these messages in different environments (e.g., e-mail, file transfer, and WWW) are described in those specifications.


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