What is an Intermediate Certificate Authority (ICA)?
An Intermediate Certificate Authority (ICA) is an entity that is authorized by a trusted root Certificate Authority (CA) to issue digital certificates to end entities such as websites, organizations, or individuals. The primary function of an ICA is to enhance the security and scalability of the PKI (Public Key Infrastructure) by acting as a bridge between the root CA and the end entity.
Typically, a trusted root CA, operated by a well-established organization, is responsible for issuing and managing digital certificates that are widely recognized and accepted by browsers and operating systems. However, root CAs are relatively high-profile targets for cyber attacks due to the critical role they play.
To mitigate risk and increase the efficiency of certificate issuance, root CAs delegate some of their authority to intermediate CAs. These intermediate CAs are entrusted with the responsibility of verifying the identity and authenticity of the end entities and issuing digital certificates on behalf of the root CA.
How do digital certificates work?
Digital certificates are a fundamental component of the PKI that ensures secure communication over networks, particularly the Internet. They provide a way to verify the authenticity and integrity of digital information, such as websites, email communication, or digital signatures.
Here’s a simplified overview of how digital certificates work:
- Request: The entity (e.g., an organization) seeking a digital certificate submits a request to an intermediate CA, providing information such as their identity, domain, and public key.
- Verification: The intermediate CA verifies the identity of the requesting entity by conducting various checks, such as validating ownership of the domain or conducting background checks on the organization.
- Issuance: Once the verification process is complete, the intermediate CA issues a digital certificate to the entity. This certificate contains information such as the entity’s public key, its identity, the CA’s digital signature, and the certificate’s validity period.
- Installation: The entity installs the issued digital certificate on its server or device, allowing it to secure its communication and prove its authenticity to other entities.
- Validation: When a third party, such as a user’s browser, interacts with the entity’s digital certificate, it checks the certificate’s chain of trust. This process involves verifying the certificate’s digital signature, checking its validity period, and ensuring that the intermediate CA’s certificate is issued by a trusted root CA.
- Secure communication: Once the certificate’s validity is confirmed, secure communication can be established using encryption and other cryptographic mechanisms, ensuring that the information transmitted is protected against eavesdropping or tampering.
Overall, the trust and security in digital certificates are derived from the hierarchical trust model, wherein the trust is placed in well-established root CAs that delegate authority to intermediate CAs. This system ensures that end entities can securely communicate and users can reliably verify the authenticity of the digital information they interact with.