Thought for the day: Give PKI a chance

For years government and industry have expressed their doubts about the viability of Public Key Infrastructure technology. Simon...

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For years government and industry have expressed their doubts about the viability of Public Key Infrastructure technology. Simon Moores urges the cynics to take a second look.



Is Public Key Infrastructure dead or is it alive, well, and living in Europe? I will admit that I don’t have a definitive answer to this question.

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 digital signature perspective.

There is no doubt that the future of PKI represents one of the more complex technology debates. 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 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 is positioned differently to the solutions that other vendors have offered," says Adler. "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 than the operating system licence.
“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," he continues. "There are now probably more Windows users transparently using PKI for applications such as smart card logon, secure networking including wireless Lans, 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 must be used properly if you want security," says security expert Bruce Schneier. "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 the likes of BT,  Shell, Identrus and the UK’s own public sector, 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.

What do you think?

What's your stance on PKI?  Tell us in an e-mail >> reserves the right to edit and publish answers on the website. Please state if your answer is not for publication.

Setting the world to rights with the collected thoughts and opinions of leading industry analyst Dr Simon Moores of Zentelligence.

Acting globally, Zentelligence (Research) advises governments, suppliers, business and the media on the evolution, application and delivery of leading-edge technologies and specialises in the areas of eGovernment and information security.

For further information on Zentelligence and its research, presentation and analyst services visit

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