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How we can use PKI to solve IoT challenges?

Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) is a system of roles, policies, and technologies that are required to create, manage, store and revoke, digital certificates and public keys for encryption. In order to authenticate the identification of users, devices or services, these digital certificates are issued. The prevalence of IoT (Internet of Things) gadgets in our daily lives are rising, from industrial machinery to smart home appliances.

Meanwhile, the demand for secure communication increases as more and more devices are linked to the internet. One way to address this growing demand is through the use of PKI (Public Key Infrastructure). As PKI enables secure communication and device authentication for connected devices, it can be utilized to address a variety of Internet of Things (IoT) Internet of Things (IoT) concerns.

IoT devices are often basic sensors and actuators with significant resource limitations. In order to participate in a PKI, they must have mechanisms for initial enrollment (i.e., obtaining the first certificate and key pair), re-enrollment and certificate verification.

While IoT devices grow in tens of billions around us, with a person being connected to an average of 3 devices each, it is no wonder we face several problems and challenges concerning IoT. We can make efficient use of PKI to deal with them.

A general overview of the process, how we can use PKI to solve IoT challenges

  1. Identify the security challenges

    The first step in using PKI to solve IoT problems is to identify the specific security challenges facing your IoT deployment. This can include issues such as device authentication, secure communication, device management, and compliance with regulations.

    This is a crucial step as it will help you to determine which PKI solution will be the best fit for your IoT deployment, and what specific PKI features you will need to implement to address these challenges.

  2. Choose a PKI solution

    Once the security challenges have been identified, you will need to choose a PKI solution that is appropriate for your IoT deployment. Several PKI solutions are available, including commercial, open-source, and custom-built solutions. It is important to choose a solution that is compatible with your devices and network infrastructure, and that provides the features you need to address your specific security challenges.

  3. Set up the PKI infrastructure

    The next step is to set up the PKI infrastructure, which typically includes creating and configuring the certificate authority (CA), issuing digital certificates to devices and servers, and configuring the devices and servers to use the PKI infrastructure. This step can involve setting up hardware, such as a physical server or virtual machine to host the CA, and configuring software, such as the CA software itself.

  4. Configure device authentication

    Configuring device authentication is the next step after setting up the PKI infrastructure. This normally entails issuing each device a special digital certificate that can be used to authenticate the device’s identity when it tries to connect to a network or system. This step could also involve setting up any necessary trust connections between the servers, devices, and the CA, as well as configuring the devices and servers to use digital certificates for device authentication.

  5. Configure secure communication

    Once device authentication is configured, the other step is to configure secure communication between devices. This usually involves using digital certificates to encrypt the communication between devices to ensure that only authorized devices can read the communication.

  6. Configure device management

    The next step is to configure device management. This generally involves using digital certificates to authenticate the device management server, ensuring that only authorized servers can access and administer the devices. It also includes ensuring that only authorized software updates can be installed on the devices, reducing the risk of malware or other malicious software being installed.

  7. Monitor and maintain the PKI infrastructure

    Once the PKI infrastructure is set up and operational, it is crucial to monitor it for any issues and manage it so that it keeps working as intended. This entails regularly applying the most recent security fixes to the computers and servers, keeping an eye out for security breaches, and revoking or replacing any compromised digital certificates.

  8. Compliance

    If the IoT devices handle sensitive information and the device needs to comply with regulations such as HIPAA, GDPR, etc. it is important to keep a record of the PKI infrastructure setup, the digital certificates issued, and the devices that have access to the network, in order to demonstrate compliance with regulations. This includes keeping track of the devices, certificates, and other components of the PKI infrastructure, and ensuring that all necessary compliance documents are in order.

Some of the IoT challenges and how PKI can be used to deal with them are explained in brief below.

Device Authentication

Making sure that only authorized devices are connected to a network or system is one of the biggest difficulties facing IoT. IoT applications are quite versatile, and the number of smart devices in our environment is increasing dramatically.

These applications include smart cities, smart homes, and even smart healthcare, which calls for a significant number of linked devices—tens of billions, to be exact. Knowing who is permitted to send and receive the data is crucial since a lot of data is sent and received through the internet. Due to IoT resource limitations, typical communication protocols are ineffective for IoT systems.

PKI can be utilized to authenticate IoT devices by issuing unique digital certificates to each device. When a device tries to connect to a network or system, these certificates can be used to confirm the identification of the device.

The process works by the device providing its certificate to the network or system, which then verifies the authenticity of the certificate by checking it against a trusted certificate authority (CA). The device is given access to the network or system after the certificate has been validated. This ensures that only permitted devices can connect to the network and stops unauthorized devices from doing so.

Secure communication

The connected devices in IoT are susceptible to attacks from other devices. An attacker can quickly corrupt all other connected devices in a home network, for instance, if they manage to access just one device on the network. The potential for a man-in-the-middle (MitM) attack is one of the most significant risks brought on by insecure communication.

If your device doesn’t use secure encryption and authentication protocols, hackers can easily carry out MitM attacks to compromise an update procedure and gain control of your device.

PKI can be used to secure IoT communication is by encrypting the communication between devices. This can be done by enabling devices to obtain and renew X.509 digital certificates which are used to encrypt the communication, ensuring that only authorized devices can read the communication.

For equipment like medical devices or industrial machinery that handles sensitive data, this is extremely crucial. For instance, to secure patient information, a medical device may utilize PKI to encrypt communication between the device and a hospital’s electronic health record (EHR) system.

Network Security

Network-based attacks may be used to exploit IoT devices. Networked devices boost an organization’s operational efficiency and visibility, but they also pose serious security threats and increase the attack surface. The network touches all data and workloads after the devices connect to it.

Hackers can use this technique to compromise any systems and data on the network. The devices connect to the network and the network touches all data and workloads. Hackers can use this technique to compromise any systems and data on the network.

PKI can be used to secure communication between the devices and the network by encrypting the data and securing the network communication channel with digital certificates. This helps to ensure that the data is protected while it is in transit, and that it is only accessible by authorized devices.

Network security is aided by PKI, which controls the issuing of digital certificates to protect sensitive data and also offers distinct digital identities for secure end-to-end communication. Network security is aided by PKI, which controls the issuing of digital certificates to protect sensitive data and also offers distinct digital identities for secure end-to-end communication.

Over-the-Air (OTA) updates

Once embedded, IoT devices require constant maintenance and updates to stay sophisticated and reliable over time. IoT devices are frequently deployed in the field and are difficult to reach for software upgrades and maintenance. Hence IoT devices are maintained with the help of Over-The-Air (OTA) updates. Any updates that are wirelessly distributed and deployed are referred to as OTA updates.

PKI can be used to ensure the authenticity and integrity of the OTA updates, to prevent unauthorized updates and to guarantee that the device software is authentic. PKI can be used to encrypt the communication channel between the device and the update server and to sign firmware images. By doing this, the device can confirm the update’s authenticity and only accept updates from reliable sources.


To sum up, Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) is an essential system that can be used to address the growing demand for secure communication and device authentication in the Internet of Things (IoT) landscape. By identifying specific security challenges, choosing an appropriate PKI solution, setting up the PKI infrastructure, configuring device authentication, secure communication, device management, monitoring and maintaining the PKI infrastructure, and ensuring compliance with regulations.

PKI can help ensure that only authorized devices are connected to a network or system, and that the communication between these devices is secure. As the number of connected devices continues to grow, PKI will play an increasingly important role in addressing the security challenges of IoT.

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About the Author

Surabhi is consultant at Encryption consulting, working with Code Signing and development. She leverages her adept knowledge of HSMs and PKIs to implement robust security measures within software applications. Her understanding of cryptographic protocols and key management practices enables her to architect secure code signing solutions tailored to meet the requirements of enterprise environments. Her interests include exploring the realm of cybersecurity through the lens of digital forensics. She enjoys learning about threat intelligence, understanding how adversaries operate, and comprehend strategies to defend against potential attacks.

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