Understanding Public Key Infrastructure and X.509 Certificates


An introduction to PKI, TLS and X.509, from the ground up.

Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) provides a framework of encryption and data communications standards used to secure communications over public networks. At the heart of PKI is a trust built among clients, servers and certificate authorities (CAs). This trust is established and propagated through the generation, exchange and verification of certificates.

This article focuses on understanding the certificates used to establish trust between clients and servers. These certificates are the most visible part of the PKI (especially when things break!), so understanding them will help to make sense of—and correct—many common errors.

As a brief introduction, imagine you want to connect to your bank to schedule a bill payment, but you want to ensure that your communication is secure. "Secure" in this context means not only that the content remains confidential, but also that the server with which you're communicating actually belongs to your bank.

Without protecting your information in transit, someone located between you and your bank could observe the credentials you use to log in to the server, your account information, or perhaps the parties to which your payments are being sent. Without being able to confirm the identity of the server, you might be surprised to learn that you are talking to an impostor (who now has access to your account information).

Transport layer security (TLS) is a suite of protocols used to negotiate a secured connection using PKI. TLS builds on the SSL standards of the late 1990s, and using it to secure client to server connections on the internet has become ubiquitous. Unfortunately, it remains one of the least understood technologies, with errors (often resulting from an incorrectly configured website) becoming a regular part of daily life. Because those errors are inconvenient, users regularly click through them without a second thought.

Understanding the X.509 certificate, which is fully defined in RFC 5280, is key to making sense of those errors. Unfortunately, these certificates have a well deserved reputation of being opaque and difficult to manage. With the multitude of formats used to encode them, this reputation is rightly deserved.

An X.509 certificate is a structured, binary record. This record consists of several key and value pairs. Keys represent field names, where values may be simple types (numbers, strings) to more complex structures (lists). The encoding from the key/value pairs to the structured binary record is done using a standard known as ASN.1 (Abstract Syntax Notation, One), which is a platform-agnostic encoding format.