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Not Dead – Just Resting

Is PKI (Public Key Infrastructure) dead or is it alive, well, and living in Europe? I will admit, I don’t have a definitive answer to this question, so today’s column is an example of my thinking aloud.

Last month, I attended a meeting on identity and security held in a committee room at Westminster and heard from one side that “PKI was developed for organisations and is not appropriate for citizen relationships with Government in a free society”. If this doesn’t sound harsh enough then how about our own Government describing traditional PKI as “A “miserable failure” or in the case of the EU data protection authorities, it’s either a “Privacy decreasing technology” or the technology that will make Europe more competitive, if you examine the argument from the EU digital signature perspective.

There is no doubt that the future of PKI represents one of the more complex technology debates that surrounds us at this time. It is either the devil’s own work or a universal solution to the identity challenge of living in a digital society, depending on your source of information.

Let’s agree for the sake of argument that PKI is a mature technology, after all, it’s been kicked around like a football between government and business for years now. It represents a single technology solution to the problems surrounding confidentiality, authentication and non-repudiation, is supported in all major security standards, is integrated into applications, such as Microsoft’s Windows Server 2003 and provides a legal framework for the European Digital Signature Directive. If I have missed anything, let me know.

There is little doubt then that PKI provides us with the main security component for enterprise security and overlaps into other important areas such as secure login with smartcards, wireless security, file/folder encryption (EFS), code signing Web Services (WS-EVPN/SSL and secure electronic mail.

If we can accept for a moment that Europe needs something to tie-together the raft of digital legislation coming from Brussels, then a broader adoption of PKI, using digital signatures would appear to be the answer. However, a number of problems keep getting in the way. There are standards issues, liability issues policy issues and of course end-user issues, translated into how do I get my first digital certificate anyway?

An industry led by Microsoft firmly believes that Europe’s future lies with the adoption of PKI standards and this year’s ‘PKI Challenge’, carried out by The European Electronic Messaging Association (EEMA) demonstrated that interoperability, at least in Windows, was no longer an objection.

Steven Adler, Microsoft’s Senior Security Strategist for EMEA, is confident that many of the earlier concerns expressed over the suitability of PKI have now been addressed by Microsoft, which views it as a core technology for its future products.

The Windows PKI" says Adler “Is positioned differently to the solutions that other vendors have offered. Whereas other vendors such as Baltimore, Entrust, RSA and Verisign have typically positioned their solutions for single line of business applications and charge for each PKI certificate issued, Microsoft's approach has been to embed PKI as a core infrastructure component, without any additional charges other then the operating system license”.

Adler continues, “Microsoft's decision to embrace PKI as a core Windows component means that it can be exploited transparently by many applications and that deployment costs and administration burdens are reduced as certificates can be issued automatically. There are now probably more Windows users transparently using PKI for applications such as smart card logon, secure networking including wireless LAN's, digitally signing documents and personal encryption of files and mail messages than the traditional applications you might associates with the other PKI vendors”.

So if we have a strong and available technology, why the objections? Most of these arise when PKI is linked with our personal notion of identity, proving we are who we say we are, in the increasingly ID-obsessed post-911 world After all if your digital identity is stolen, how liable are you? Nobody seems to know.

“Certificates”, says security expert Bruce Schneier, “Must be used properly if you want security. Are these practices designed with solid security reasons, or are they just rituals or imitations of the behaviour of someone else? Many such practices and even parts of some standards are just imitations, which, when carefully traced back, started out as arbitrary choices by people who didn’t try to get a real answer”.

PKI is a poorly understood technology but one, which is increasingly pervasive at the enterprise, level with BT, Shell, Identrus and the UK’s own public sector, being just some examples of where it is employed successfully and on a broad scale. Governments across Europe are investigating, piloting and agonising over PKI technology and in the end, it may become too strong an argument to resist.


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