PKI

What you need to know about PKCS#11 ?

Public-key Certificate Standards (PKCS)

Public-key Certificate Standards (PKCS) is a group of cryptographic standards that provide guidelines and application programming interfaces (APIs) for using cryptographic methods.

It seems too overwhelming for any person trying to start with PKCS. Let’s try to simplify things here; PKCS lays the infrastructure for the basic grounds of information exchange using PKI. It is a set of standards that uses cryptography to secure certificates and establish a secure PKI. PKI is all about the implementation of PKCS.

PKCS is a family of 15 standards, each addressing unique solutions.

  • PKCS #1: RSA Cryptography Standard
  • PKCS #2 and #4: Incorporated into PKCS #1 (no longer exist)
  • PKCS #3: Diffie-Hellman Key Agreement Standard.
  • PKCS #5: Password-based Cryptography Standard
  • PKCS #6: Extended-Certificate Syntax Standard.
  • PKCS #7: Cryptographic Message Syntax Standard
  • PKCS #8: Private-Key Information Syntax Standard
  • PKCS #9: Selected Object Classes and Attribution Types.
  • PKCS #10: Certification Request Syntax Standard
  • PKCS #11: Cryptographic Token Interface Standard (Cryptoki).
  • PKCS #12: Personal Information Exchange Syntax Standard
  • PKCS #13: Elliptic Curve Cryptography Standard.
  • PKCS #14: Pseudo-random Number Generation.
  • PKCS #15: Cryptographic Token Information Format Standard

This blog will cover more about PKCS #11 and help you get familiarized with it.

PKCS #11 is a cryptographic token interface standard that specifies an API (Application Programming Interface) called Cryptoki. Cryptoki is a platform-independent API that defines cryptographic tokens. Cryptographic tokens are the devices such as Hardware Security Modules (HSM), Smart cards, or any other cryptographic embedded device.

Cryptoki specifies API to devices that hold cryptographic information and are capable of carrying out cryptographic functions.

Cryptoki defines the most commonly used cryptographic object types (RSA keys, X.509 certificates, DES/Triple DES keys, etc.) and all the functions needed to use, create/generate, modify, and delete those objects.

The intended audience for Cryptoki is the devices with single-user access. Cryptoki isolates an application from the details of the cryptographic device. Cryptoki is cryptography oriented and focuses gravely on cryptography leaving non-cryptographic functions to other interfaces.

PKCS specifications are defined for both binary and American Standard Code for Information Interchange data types.

Importance of PKCS

Every industry running in the current scenario is dependent on PKCS. Constant efforts are put into integrating PKCS standards into the infrastructure of every possible running industry presently. Companies in sectors such as healthcare, education, and even government unwittingly subscribe to these standards when they incorporate various SaaS solutions and cloud-based infrastructure decisions into their systems. 

At an individual level, every website and application accessed from a personal device is also subject to PKCS standards. It makes sense, considering how much personal information flows into an online shopping, dating app, or even our all-time favourite navigator-Google Maps.

Reasons that make PKCS so crucial

  • Security

    Consider the modern-day scenario where it’s a very astronomical chance to find any device that isn’t connected to the internet. Being connected to the internet comes with its own risks of increased cyber-attacks. According to the Cost of a Data Breach 2022 Report by IBM, the average cost of a data breach in the United States is $9.44 million, which indeed is a very hefty sum. PKCS ensures that communication on the internet goes smoothly and ensures the integrity of the communication.

  • Interoperability

    The most significant advantage of using PKCS is the ability to securely allow various hardware and software forms to communicate without many development overheads. This makes it easier to explore different solutions and vendors. It also works well in the current cloud-driven infrastructure models.

  • Compliance

    With so much private and sensitive data doing the rounds, governing bodies across all industries have created regulations to control how this data is transmitted and stored. Encrypted data is usually the first mandate in all these regulations.

  • Versatility

    New devices and exceptional hardware capabilities are surfacing every day. The concept of stand-alone hardware is moot now, with every device recording or transmitting some form of data.

    The Internet-of-things (IoT) has caught on, with data constantly being uploaded and used to make operations more efficient. An architecture that complies with the PKCS standards makes it easier to adapt these new technologies without necessarily uprooting the sections of the existing system .

Conclusion

The use of PKCS#11 and the PKCS family for the safe and secure establishment of communication over the internet. PKCS family is providing the necessary stepping stones for encrypted services and the basis of PKI. Without the integration of PKCS in industry infrastructure there is no safe communication on the internet. PKCS provides us with advantages of security, compliance, versatility and interoperability which is much needed. 

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About the Author

Akashdeep is a Consultant at Encryption Consulting, working with PKIs, HSMs and key management.

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