Random Access   chris, kp & rob
Tech Take-Apart
What are Digital Certificates?
by kp

In last month's Random Access, I briefly covered how to set up a digital certificate in Outlook for email encryption. With the help of Outlook's tools, it is fairly easy to protect your email communication, but there is much more that goes on behind the scenes. This month, I'll explore some of the fundamentals of digital certificates and signatures.

Digital certificates are part of a security standard called public key infrastructure or PKI. This standard focuses on using cryptography to ensure authentication (to verify the identity of a user), confidentiality (protecting the privacy of data), data integrity (data that hasn't been modified or corrupted) and nonrepudiation (verifying the data has been sent to the appropriate source). The use of digital certificates and public/private keys are one way of applying these concepts. These keys are generated by a certificate authority, or CA, to be used to protect data by only authorizing the decryption of data by those individuals having both public and private keys. The public key, as the name denotes, is used to encrypt a message and is readily available to anyone. The sender shares the private key to their recipients, then these recipients use the private key to unlock the message.

A digital certificate works by authenticating the sender's identity by guaranteeing the signature through a CA. Microsoft recommends certain CAs for their applications such as VeriSign. These certifications may cost a minimal amount of money and require you to provide some personal information. VeriSign also provides an good tutorial on digital IDs which can be found at the VeriSign website.

If you need to send Visual Basic macros (embedded into Word, Excel, or PowerPoint files for example) to someone, Microsoft recommends that you use their SelfCert software included in Office 2000 to encrypt them. This will verify the macro someone receives hasn't been tampered with or changed into a virus. For more information on installing and using SelfCert, go to Microsoft Support.

Microsoft Support - Description of digital certificates
Microsoft Support - Using SelfCert to Create a Digital Certificate for VBA Projects
Newton, Harvey. Newton's Telecom Dictionary 21st Edition. CMP Books, San Francisco, CA. 2005.

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