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What are Public and Private Key Certificates?

Updated: Feb 23

Public and private key certificates are used in the cybersecurity realm to ensure secure communication between two parties. A public key certificate is a digital document that contains information about the public key of a particular entity. The certificate is signed by a trusted third party, known as a certificate authority (CA), which verifies the identity of the entity.

 public private key certificates - picture of key in a lock by ries-bosch-5Dp7XJxILTk-unsplash

How Public and Private Key Certificates Work

When two parties want to communicate securely, they exchange their public keys. The sender encrypts the message using the recipient’s public key, and the recipient decrypts the message using their private key. This ensures that only the intended recipient can read the message.

Public key certificates are used in many different applications, including secure web browsing and email encryption. They are also used in digital signatures to ensure that a document has not been tampered with.

Public Key Encryption Example

A classic example of public key encryption is the widely adopted RSA algorithm. In RSA encryption, each user possesses a pair of keys: a public key and a private key. The public key is shared openly and used to encrypt messages, while the private key is kept secret and used to decrypt them. For instance, if Alice wants to send a secure message to Bob, she obtains Bob's public key and uses it to encrypt the message. Only Bob, who holds the corresponding private key, can decrypt and read the message. This ensures confidentiality and authenticity in communication, as only the intended recipient possesses the private key necessary to decipher the encrypted message.

Public key encryption is essential for secure online transactions, email communication, and other applications where data privacy and integrity are paramount. To mitigate intrusions, it is important to ensure that public key certificates are issued by trusted certificate authorities. It is also important to ensure that private keys are kept secure and not shared with anyone.

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