Check out the new USENIX Web site.

Home About USENIX Events Membership Publications Students

Establishing Identity Without Certification Authorities

Carl M. Ellison
CyberCash, Inc.


It is commonly assumed that if one wants to be sure a public key belongs to the person he hopes it does, he must use an identity certificate issued by a trusted Certification Authority (CA). The thesis of this paper is that a traditional identity certificate is neither necessary nor sufficient for this purpose. It is especially useless if the two parties concerned did not have the foresight to obtain such certificates before desiring to open a secure channel.

There are many methods for establishing identity without using certificates from trusted certification authorities. The relationship between verifier and subject guides the choice of method. Many of these relationships have easy, straight-forward methods for binding a public key to an identity, using a broadcast channel or 1:1 meetings, but one relationship makes it especially difficult. That relationship is one with an old friend with whom you had lost touch but who appears now to be available on the net. You make contact and share a few exchanges which suggest to you that this is, indeed, your old friend. Then you want to form a secure channel in order to carry on a more extensive conversation in private. This case is subject to the man-in-the-middle attack. For this case, a protocol is presented which binds a pair of identities to a pair of public keys without using any certificates issued by a trusted CA.

The apparent direct conflict between conventional wisdom and the thesis of this paper lies in the definition of the word ``identity'' -- a word which is commonly left undefined in discussions of certification.

View the full text of this paper in HTML and POSTSCRIPT (209,487 Bytes) form.

To Become a USENIX Member, please see our Membership Information.

?Need help? Use our Contacts page.

Last changed: 1 May 2002 aw
Conference Index