HP Open Source Security for OpenVMS Volume 2: HP SSL for OpenVMS > Chapter 2 Overview of SSL


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A certificate, or digital certificate, is an electronic document used to identify an individual, a server, a company, or some other entity and to associate that identity with a public key. Like a driver's license, a passport, or other commonly used personal IDs, a certificate provides generally recognized proof of a person's identity. Public key cryptography uses certificates to address the problem of impersonation.

Certificates are issued by certificate authorities. The Certificate Authority (CA) is a trusted third party that verifies the identity of the site with which you are connected. Like any form of identification, the authenticity of the issuer is essential.

The role of CAs in validating identities and in issuing certificates is analogous to the way a government issues passports and driver's licenses. CAs can be either independent third parties or organizations running their own certificate-issuing server software (such as Netscape Certificate Server).

The methods used to validate an identity vary depending on the policies of a given CA. In general, before issuing a certificate, the CA must use its published verification procedures for that type of certificate to ensure that an entity requesting a certificate is in fact who it claims to be.

The certificate issued by the CA binds a particular public key to the name of the entity the certificate identifies (such as the name of an employee or a server). Certificates help prevent the use of fake public keys for impersonation. Only the public key certified by the certificate works with the corresponding private key possessed by the entity identified by the certificate.

In addition to a public key, a certificate always includes the name of the entity it identifies, an expiration date, the name of the CA that issued the certificate, a serial number, and other information. Most importantly, a certificate always includes the digital signature of the issuing CA. The CA's digital signature allows the certificate to function as a "letter of introduction" for users who know and trust the CA but who do not know the entity identified by the certificate.

For information about the HP SSL Certificate Tool, which allows you to view and create certificates, see Chapter 3.