How PKI Works

For electronic government to work, agencies and individuals must be convinced

that transactions can be carried out privately and that documents are authentic.

The paper world relies on signatures. The computer world needs an electronic

equivalent.

Personal identification numbers and passwords have proven to be relatively

insecure. Smart cards and biometrics (retina, iris and fingerprint scans,

for example) are possibilities, but expensive. For now, the federal government

is promoting PKI — public-key infrastructure.

PKI is a system for encrypting, decrypting, signing and verifying the

authenticity of information that is transmitted over the Internet.

It works by providing each Internet user with two "keys" — one that

is public and one that is private. The private key is available only to

the user. The public key is available to anyone — a bank, an agency case

worker, a sales clerk — on a publicly accessible World Wide Web site.

When an individual transmit a document that he or she wants to remain

private, such as a sales contract, tax information or a bank statement,

he or she encrypts it with the public key of the recipient. That way, only

the recipient has the correct private key to decrypt it.

PKI includes functions that enable message recipients to verify that

documents have not been changed and to determine which keys have been used

to encrypt and decrypt documents. Another PKI feature is a digital signature

to positively identify the sender. Thus, PKI ensures that documents are

authentic and that the people involved in a transaction really are who they

say they are.

Federal security experts believe PKI will provide the level of confidence

needed for the public to widely accept electronic government, according

to the General Accounting Office.

Featured

  • Defense
    Ryan D. McCarthy being sworn in as Army Secretary Oct. 10, 2019. (Photo credit: Sgt. Dana Clarke/U.S. Army)

    Army wants to spend nearly $1B on cloud, data by 2025

    Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said lack of funding or a potential delay in the JEDI cloud bid "strikes to the heart of our concern."

  • Congress
    Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) at the Hack the Capitol conference Sept. 20, 2018

    Jim Langevin's view from the Hill

    As chairman of of the Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committe and a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rhode Island Democrat Jim Langevin is one of the most influential voices on cybersecurity in Congress.

Stay Connected

FCW INSIDER

Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.