Has PKI met its Waterloo? – 2008


Public key infrastructure (PKI) has found few uses outside national governments due the high costs caused by its high complexity. Has PKI met its Waterloo in these factors?

As Napoleon's defeated Grand Armée withdrew from the battlefield at Waterloo, its retreat was covered by units from the Old Guard, part of a small, elite unit under Napoleon's direct control. The soldiers in this unit were the best and bravest veterans from his previous battles and the most feared soldiers in Europe. In addition to being Napoleon's personal bodyguards, these units were his weapon of last resort, and they were rarely committed in battle.

Eventually the Old Guard's position became untenable, and the English General Charles Colville offered them a chance to surrender and avoid being inevitably destroyed by the vastly superior numbers of Wellington's victorious army. The French General Pierre Cambronne is said to have replied to Colville's request, "La Garde meurt, elle ne se rend pas!" – "The Guard dies, it does not surrender!" Cambronne later denied having said this, but that didn't stop the words from being inscribed on the statue of him that was eventually erected in his home town of Nantes, and they have become one of the legends that are commonly associated with the battle of Waterloo.

Despite its questionable authenticity, Cambronne's defiant reply may be good inspiration for a rallying cry that may be appropriate for supporters of public-key infrastructure (PKI) technology: "PKI dies, it does not surrender!" Except for the single use in implementing SSL, the use of encryption to identify servers and encrypt connections to them, PKI has proven to be extremely difficult to use and expensive to support, but its dedicated advocates insist on continuing its use to the bitter end. They even continue to support its use in the face of many newer technologies that are just as secure, more user-friendly and have a much lower total cost of ownership. PKI's proponents seem to never surrender.

PKI technology was a very innovative idea when it was first introduced. The digital certificates that PKI creates and manages provide the basis for authentication, digital signatures and encryption, all of which are very useful to have. Unfortunately, PKI also turned out to have many practical problems that its inventors didn't anticipate. These practical difficulties made it too difficult for the average user to use, which then resulted in very high support costs. So although it had an extremely promising start, it turned out to be unsuitable for most uses, the most notable exception being the use by government organizations.

Governments have an entirely different set of priorities than commercial enterprises: while businesses need to be profitable in order to survive in the long run, government organizations do not. Staying profitable is of utmost concern to businesses; spending their budgets and keeping people employed are among the highest priorities of most governments, and costs are relatively less important. So while most businesses found PKI to be unsuitable for widespread use, governments didn't find its high costs objectionable. This has led to almost all of the use of PKI being confined to governments and government contractors. And despite the high costs of doing it, governments have continued to move ahead with expensive PKI projects, with the American government alone having spent over $1 billion on the technology to date.

But while this has happened, many recent innovations have made it possible to provide the same benefits that PKI once promised, but at greatly reduced costs. Encrypted e-mail, for example, has recently become fairly popular due to heightened regulatory compliance concerns, so it has become much more widely deployed than it was just a few years ago. But if you look at the secure e-mail solutions that are commonly used today, you'll find that they're usually not based on PKI. Even if a solution does support PKI, that mode of operation is rarely used by customers. But while the use of newer technologies for encrypted e-mail has boomed, governments have continued to use PKI to provide this capability, perhaps attracted by its superior ability to help them spend their budgets and keep additional people employed.

Cost that is caused by unnecessary complexity may turn out to be the battle that PKI can't win when it's pitted against these newer technologies, so it may be somewhat appropriate to refer to it as "PKI's Waterloo." But because its supporters seem to have been inspired by Cambronne's legendary reply to Colville, it may be quite a while until we finally see them admit defeat.

On the other hand, Waterloo was the first time that Napoleon's Guards retreated without being ordered to do so. Perhaps supporters of PKI will suffer a similar change of heart, realize that their battle can't be won, and give governments a chance to realize the same cost savings that the commercial world has already experienced. We can only hope that this happens soon. Although it's often attributed to him, American senator Everett McKinley Dirkson never actually said, "A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money," but it gives an idea of the savings that this might allow.

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