Sun Microsystems' warning that several of its public key certificates have been compromised points to a serious problem with this widely used security technology: Enterprises are often unaware that certificates they rely on have been revoked and thus should not be trusted.
Part of the problem is that any system that relies on manual input is inherently fallible. Software tools that speed the process are available--for example, the OnLine Status Protocol, which validates certificates in real time--but are not yet widely deployed and still require applications to initiate the check. Specialized vendors such as ValiCert and CertCo offer validation tools and services. However, as Sun's difficulties show, none of those approaches are yet commonly used.
The bottom line: Just as merchants have to check the validity of a credit card before every purchase, enterprises must confirm the validity of digital certificates on a timely and ongoing basis. Major software vendors such as Sun should provide applications that do this as integral components of their products. Until they do, they can expect continuing questions about the true strength of their security.
(For related commentary on choosing a public key infrastructure vendor, see TechRepublic.com--free registration required.)
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