Public and private key pairs lie at the core of how is referred to as public key cryptography. Together, they work to secure and authenticate messages. They also lie behind how we authenticate messages at PreVeil.
We often find ourselves explaining the concepts of how these keys work when we talk to prospective clients. So, we thought it would be helpful to discuss what these keys are, what they aren’t and how they work.
The answers below provide a general overview on public and private key pairs rather than an architectural overview of PreVeil. For a detailed understanding of how public-private key pairs work in PreVeil, please review our architectural whitepaper.
Public vs. private key
The main difference between a public and a private key is their use. The public key , as its name implies, is public and open to anyone in the system. The public key is typically used to encrypt data.
The private key however is known as a ‘secret key’. The secret, private key is only shared with the key owner and is only ever stored on the user’s device. It is used to decrypt data.
Public keys are used to convert the message to an unreadable form. Private key is used to convert the received message back to the original message. Both these keys help to ensure the security of the exchanged data. A message encrypted with the public key cannot be decrypted without using the corresponding private key.
how are public and private keys generated
The public and private key are not really keys but rather really large prime numbers that are mathematically related to one another. Being related in this case means that whatever is encrypted by the public key can only be decrypted by the related private key.
A person cannot guess the private key based on knowing the public key. Because of this, a public key can be freely shared. The private key however belongs to only one person.
There are several well-known mathematical algorithms that are used to produce the public and private key. Some well-respected examples of public private key encryption are RSA, DSS (Digital Signature Standard) and various elliptic curve techniques. At PreVeil, we use elliptic-curve cryptography’s Curve-25519 and NIST P-256.
Why private keys are important and how to protect them
As noted, the private key is used to decrypt the data. It is also important to providing it with a digital signature. If the private key is compromised then the communication is no longer secure. Consequently, ensuring the key’s security is very important.
In typical IT settings, IT administrators have access to all of a company’s private keys because they are stored in an accessible server. Admins use these keys to both manage and access user accounts. However this privilege also makes admins a focus of hackers’ attacks. Recently, Microsoft’s web based email services were breached by hackers who got into the system by compromising a customer support agent’s credentials. And Microsoft isn’t alone. Today 80% of data breaches are enabled by obtaining access to privileged credentials.
To protect IT admins, departments need to ensure admins don’t have sole access to users’ private keys. Instead they should only have access to part of a user’s private
key, also known as a key shard. Similarly, other trusted members of the staff would have access to the other shards. Only when the majority provide their digital consent would the IT admin be able to gain access to a majority of the shards and access an employee’s data.
By establishing this type of set-up, IT admins could have access to user data in the case of e-Discovery or other legal circumstances which require access to user data.
This is the security that PreVeil has established to maintain the security of private keys and prevent IT admins from becoming a central point of attack.
Can a public key decrypt a private key?
In asymmetric cryptography, the public and private key can also be used to create a digital signature. A digital signature assures that the person sending the message is who they claim to be.
Typically, we use the recipient’s public key to encrypt the data and the recipient then uses their private key to decrypt the data. However, using this scheme, there’s no way to authenticate the source of the message. Mike could get a hold of Bob’s public key (since it’s public) and pretend that Bob is the person sending a message to Alice.
To prevent this type of fraud, Bob can sign his message with a digital signature. Digital signatures ensure Mike can’t pretend that he is Bob by using Bob’s public key to send a message to Alice.
To create a digital signature using a public and private key, Bob digitally signs his email to Alice using his private key. When Alice receives the message from Bob, she can verify the digital signature on the message came from Bob by using his public key. As the digital signature uses Bob’s private key, Bob is the only person who could create the signature.
PreVeil’s method for securing messages is a bit more complex than the example provided above. However the example provides a good general overview for how asymmetric encryption works.
How public and private keys work
Public and private keys work together in pairs. As noted above, public keys are disseminated widely and private keys are known only to the owner.
Here’s an example of how the public and private key pair works together:
Bob wants to send Alice an encrypted email. To do this, Bob takes Alice’s public key and encrypts his message to her. Then, when Alice receives the message, she takes the private key that is known only to her in order to decrypt the message from Bob and reads it.
Although the companies owning the server might try to read the message, they will be unable to because they lack the private key to decrypt the message. Only Alice will be able to decrypt the message as she is the only one with the private key.
When Alice wants to reply, she simply repeats the process, encrypting her message to Bob using Bob’s public key.
Examples of public private key encryption.
Many protocols like SSH, OpenPGP, S/MIME, and SSL/TLS rely on asymmetric cryptography for encryption and digital signatures. It is also used in software programs, such as browsers, to establish secure connections over an insecure network like the internet.
PreVeil is one example platform that uses public and private keys to encrypt data and create digital signatures. Other well-known applications that use public and private keys to secure messages are WhatsApp and Signal.
Business benefits of public private key encryption
By using a public and private key for encryption and decryption, recipients can be confident that the data is what the sender says it is. The recipient is assured of the confidentiality, integrity and authenticity of the data.
Confidentiality is ensured because the content that is secured with the public key can only be decrypted with the private key. This ensures that only the intended recipient can ever review the contents
Integrity is ensured because part of the decryption process requires checking that the received message matches the sent message. This ensures that the message has not been changed in between.
Authenticity is ensured because each message sent by Alice to Bob is also signed by Alice’s private key. The only way to decrypt Alice’s private key is with her public key, which Bob can access. By signing the message with her private key, Alice ensures the authenticity of the message and shows that it really did come from her.