RSA Laboratories What are certificates?

RSA Labs' FAQ 4.1

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Certificates are digital documents attesting to the binding of a public key to an individual or other entity. They allow verification of the claim that a specific public key does in fact belong to a specific individual. Certificates help prevent someone from using a phony key to impersonate someone else. In some cases it may be necessary to create a chain of certificates, each one certifying the previous one until the parties involved are confident in the identity in question.

In their simplest form, certificates contain a public key and a name. As commonly used, a certificate also contains an expiration date, the name of the certifying authority that issued the certificate, a serial number, and perhaps other information. Most importantly, it contains the digital signature of the certificate issuer. The most widely accepted format for certificates is defined by the ITU-T X.509 international standard (see Question 5.3.2); thus, certificates can be read or written by any application complying with X.509. A detailed discussion of certificate formats can be found in [Ken93].

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