What is a Public-Key Infrastructure?

Public-Key Infrastructure (PKI) is a system of digital certificates and certificate authorities that are used to secure electronic transactions and communications. It is based on the use of public and private keys, and provides a secure way for users to exchange encrypted messages and verify the identity of the parties involved in the transaction.

At the heart of PKI is the use of digital certificates, which are issued by a trusted third-party entity known as a certificate authority (CA). The digital certificates contain the public key of the user, and are used to verify the identity of the user and to encrypt messages sent between users.

When a user wants to send an encrypted message to another user, they use the public key of the recipient, which is contained in their digital certificate, to encrypt the message. The recipient then uses their private key to decrypt the message. This ensures that only the intended recipient can access the message, and that the identity of the sender can be verified.

PKI is used in a wide range of applications, including secure email, secure file transfers, and secure online transactions. It is also used in Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to secure remote access to corporate networks, and in secure web browsing to protect against man-in-the-middle attacks.

Simplified Example

Imagine you have a secret club, and each member has a special key that opens the door to the club. The club also has a key holder who keeps a copy of all the keys, so that when a member loses their key, they can go to the key holder to get a new one.

In the same way, public-key infrastructure (PKI) is a system that helps secure communication between people over the internet, using two different keys - a public key and a private key. Just like how each member of the secret club has their own key, each person in a PKI system has their own pair of public and private keys. And just like how the key holder keeps a copy of all the keys, a trusted third-party called a certificate authority (CA) keeps a record of all the public keys, so that when someone needs to send a secure message, they can look up the correct public key to use.

Who Invented Public-Key Infrastructure (PKI)?

While the precise origin of the term "Public-key infrastructure (PKI)" remains a topic of debate, Loren Kohnfelder is widely credited with introducing a similar concept in his 1978 MIT S.B. (BSCSE) thesis titled "Towards a Practical Public Key Cryptosystem." In his work, Kohnfelder proposed a framework that utilized public-key cryptography for securing network communications and managing digital certificates. Notably, he is often acknowledged for coining the term due to several factors. First, his thesis predates most other publicly documented instances of the term "PKI." Second, the document offered a comprehensive discussion on the core elements and functionalities of PKI, including certificate authorities, certificate revocation, and digital signatures. Lastly, Kohnfelder's work had a substantial impact on the early standards and implementations of PKI, contributing to its recognition within the cryptography and network security community. However, it's crucial to recognize that the concept of PKI emerged collaboratively from the efforts of various researchers and practitioners, including Whitfield Diffie, Martin Hellman, Ralph Merkle, and Ron Rivest. Furthermore, organizations such as the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) played pivotal roles in standardizing PKI frameworks and best practices, cementing its crucial role in online security.


Secure Email Communication: One of the most common uses of Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) is in secure email communication. In this scenario, PKI is used to encrypt and digitally sign emails to ensure their confidentiality and authenticity. The sender of the email generates a public-private key pair and shares their public key with the recipient. The recipient can then use the public key to encrypt the email before it is sent, and the sender can use their private key to decrypt the email and read its contents.

Secure Web Browsing: PKI is also used to secure web browsing, particularly in the form of SSL/TLS certificates. When a user visits a website that uses an SSL/TLS certificate, their browser verifies the authenticity of the certificate using PKI. The certificate contains information about the website and its owner, as well as the website's public key. The browser uses the public key to encrypt the data sent to the website, ensuring that the data is confidential and cannot be intercepted or tampered with by third parties.

Electronic Signature: PKI can also be used for electronic signature and document signing. In this scenario, the signer generates a public-private key pair and uses their private key to digitally sign a document. The signature is then verified using the signer's public key, which is stored in a trusted certificate authority. This allows the recipient of the signed document to verify that the document has not been tampered with and that it was indeed signed by the signer. PKI-based electronic signatures are often used in business and legal contexts, where it is important to establish the authenticity and integrity of electronic documents.

  • Public Key: An integral part of the cryptocurrency ecosystem. It provides a secure means of transmitting and storing funds, while also enabling users to control access to their wallets.

  • Public-Key Cryptography: A cryptographic system that uses two keys, a public key and a private key, to encrypt and decrypt messages.