Exporting Keys

The simplest method for backing up a key pair is to manually export the key, protect it with a password, and store the export media in a secure location. A PKI uses several formats for importing and exporting certificates, certificate chains, and private keys.

When a user exports a certificate by using the Certificates console, the Certification Authority console, Certutil.exe, or Internet Explorer, the PKCS #7 and PKCS #12 export formats are available. The PKCS #7 format, also known as the Cryptographic Message Syntax Standard, should only be used to export certificates without the private key and for certificate chains for a CA. PKCS #7 is not useful for backing up a private key. Instead, use the PKCS #12 format, also known as the Personal Information Exchange Syntax Standard. Because the private key is included in the export, the PKCS #12 file requires that a password be used to protect the private key. An exceptionally strong password should be chosen to protect the private key.

Note You can also export keys in the Exchange Protection File (EPF) file format from the Outlook 2000 or Outlook 2002 client.

You can export a certificate by using the Certificates snap-in, the Certification Authority snap-in, or Certutil.exe. You can also use other applications, such as Outlook or Internet Explorer, to export keys for Windows NT 4.0 and earlier operating systems that do not have a snap-in. When you export a certificate by using any of the above utilities, you must enable the certificate template to allow the private key to be exported by selecting the Allow Private Key To Be Exported check box on the certificate template.

The method you should use to export a certificate is dictated by the certificate template upon which the certificate is based. For example, if the certificate contains an application policy for secure e-mail or an extended key usage Object Identifier (OID), you can use either Outlook or the Certificates snap-in. If the certificate does not contain the extended key usage OID, you must use the Certificates snap-in.

Real World

Many security experts debate the issue of exporting private keys. For some, the very fact that you can export a private key is considered a breach of security that weakens trust in the entire PKI system. Others, including myself, argue that you must balance manageability with security. We argue that being able to export a private key can save time and money by enabling the user to move to a new computer or recover files if a private key is lost or corrupt.

Ultimately the choice between security and manageability is yours. However, always remember that encryption is only as secure as the user's private key.

When you export a certificate and the associated keys, you can choose from the following additional options:

■ Include all certificates in the certification path if possible. This option includes the entire certificate chain of the exported certificate. It allows the import to include all certificates in the certificate chain up to the root certificate. This selection will allow the entire certificate chain to be present on the computer where the certificate is imported, thereby eliminating the possible need to add each individual certificate in the chain. Use this option when exporting a certificate that will be imported on a computer that cannot communicate with the issuing CA, intermediate CAs, or the root CA.

■ Enable strong protection. This option will store the exported PKCS #12 file with 128-bit encryption. You should still provide a strong password to protect the data. This option requires Internet Explorer 5.0 and Windows NT 4.0 Service Pack 4 or later. You should enable this option as an added security measure to protect the certificate.

■ Delete the private key if the export is successful. This option deletes the private key that is associated with the certificate from the certificate store. Delete the private key only if you are moving the key to another computer.

After you have successfully exported the private key with a strong password, store the exported file in a physically secure location that cannot be accessed across the network. For example, export the file to a CD-ROM and then store the CD-ROM in a safe location.

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