A public key infrastructure (PKI) is a set of roles, policies, and procedures needed to create, manage, distribute, use, store, and revoke digital certificates and manage public-key encryption. The purpose of a PKI is to facilitate the secure electronic transfer of information for a range of network activities such as e-commerce, internet banking and confidential email. It is required for activities where simple passwords are an inadequate authentication method and more rigorous proof is required to confirm the identity of the parties involved in the communication and to validate the information being transferred.

In cryptography, a PKI is an arrangement that binds public keys with respective identities of entities (like people and organizations). The binding is established through a process of registration and issuance of certificates at and by a certificate authority (CA). Depending on the assurance level of the binding, this may be carried out by an automated process or under human supervision.

The PKI role that assures valid and correct registration is called a registration authority (RA). An RA is responsible for accepting requests for digital certificates and authenticating the entity making the request. In a Microsoft PKI, a registration authority is usually called a subordinate CA.

An entity must be uniquely identifiable within each CA domain on the basis of information about that entity. A third-party validation authority (VA) can provide this entity information on behalf of the CA.


Developments in PKI occurred in the early 1970s at the British intelligence agency GCHQ, where James Ellis, Clifford Cocks and others made important discoveries related to encryption algorithms and key distribution. However, as developments at GCHQ are highly classified, the results of this work were kept secret and not publicly acknowledged until the mid-1990s.

The public disclosure of both secure key exchange and asymmetric key algorithms in 1976 by Diffie, Hellman, Rivest, Shamir, and Adleman changed secure communications entirely. With the further development of high-speed digital electronic communications (the Internet and its predecessors), a need became evident for ways in which users could securely communicate with each other, and as a further consequence of that, for ways in which users could be sure with whom they were actually interacting.

Assorted cryptographic protocols were invented and analyzed within which the new cryptographic primitives could be effectively used. With the invention of the World Wide Web and its rapid spread, the need for authentication and secure communication became still more acute. Commercial reasons alone (e.g., e-commerce, online access to proprietary databases from web browsers) were sufficient. Taher Elgamal and others at Netscape developed the SSL protocol ('https' in Web URLs); it included key establishment, server authentication (prior to v3, one-way only), and so on. A PKI structure was thus created for Web users/sites wishing secure communications.

Vendors and entrepreneurs saw the possibility of a large market, started companies (or new projects at existing companies), and began to agitate for legal recognition and protection from liability. An American Bar Association technology project published an extensive analysis of some of the foreseeable legal aspects of PKI operations (see ABA digital signature guidelines), and shortly thereafter, several U.S. states (Utah being the first in 1995) and other jurisdictions throughout the world began to enact laws and adopt regulations. Consumer groups raised questions about privacy, access, and liability considerations, which were more taken into consideration in some jurisdictions than in others.

The enacted laws and regulations differed, there were technical and operational problems in converting PKI schemes into successful commercial operation, and progress has been much slower than pioneers had imagined it would be.

By the first few years of the 21st century, the underlying cryptographic engineering was clearly not easy to deploy correctly. Operating procedures (manual or automatic) were not easy to correctly design (nor even if so designed, to execute perfectly, which the engineering required). The standards that existed were insufficient.

PKI vendors have found a market, but it is not quite the market envisioned in the mid-1990s, and it has grown both more slowly and in somewhat different ways than were anticipated. PKIs have not solved some of the problems they were expected to, and several major vendors have gone out of business or been acquired by others. PKI has had the most success in government implementations; the largest PKI implementation to date is the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) PKI infrastructure for the Common Access Cards program.