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1. Overview

In this tutorial, we're going to learn about the Digital Signature mechanism and how we can implement it using the Java Cryptography Architecture (JCA). We'll explore the KeyPair, MessageDigest, Cipher, KeyStore, Certificate, and Signature JCA APIs.

We'll start by understanding what is Digital Signature, how to generate a key pair, and how to certify the public key from a certificate authority (CA). After that, we'll see how to implement Digital Signature using the low-level and high-level JCA APIs.

2. What Is Digital Signature?

2.1. Digital Signature Definition

Digital Signature is a technique for ensuring:

  • Integrity: the message hasn't been altered in transit
  • Authenticity: the author of the message is really who they claim to be
  • Non-repudiation: the author of the message can't later deny that they were the source

2.2. Sending a Message with a Digital Signature

Technically speaking, a digital signature is the encrypted hash (digest, checksum) of a message. That means we generate a hash from a message and encrypt it with a private key according to a chosen algorithm.

The message, the encrypted hash, the corresponding public key, and the algorithm are all then sent. This is classified as a message with its digital signature.

2.3. Receiving and Checking a Digital Signature

To check the digital signature, the message receiver generates a new hash from the received message, decrypts the received encrypted hash using the public key, and compares them. If they match, the Digital Signature is said to be verified.

We should note that we only encrypt the message hash, and not the message itself. In other words, Digital Signature doesn't try to keep the message secret. Our digital signature only proves that the message was not altered in transit.

When the signature is verified, we're sure that only the owner of the private key could be the author of the message.

3. Digital Certificate and Public Key Identity

A certificate is a document that associates an identity to a given public key.  Certificates are signed by a third-party entity called a Certificate Authority (CA).

We know that if the hash we decrypt with the published public key matches the actual hash, then the message is signed. However, how do we know that the public key really came from the right entity? This is solved by the use of digital certificates.

A Digital Certificate contains a public key and is itself signed by another entity. The signature of that entity can itself be verified by another entity and so on. We end up having what we call a certificate chain. Each top entity certifies the public key of the next entity. The most top-level entity is self-signed, which means that his public key is signed by his own private key.

The X.509 is the most used certificate format, and it is shipped either as binary format (DER) or text format (PEM). JCA already provides an implementation for this via the X509Certificate class.

4. KeyPair Management

Since Digital Signature uses a private and public key, we'll use the JCA classes PrivateKey and PublicKey for signing and checking a message, respectively.

4.1. Getting a KeyPair

To create a key pair of a private and public key, we'll use the Java keytool.

Let's generate a key pair using the genkeypair command:

keytool -genkeypair -alias senderKeyPair -keyalg RSA -keysize 2048 \
  -dname "CN=Baeldung" -validity 365 -storetype PKCS12 \
  -keystore sender_keystore.p12 -storepass changeit

This creates a private key and its corresponding public key for us. The public key is wrapped into an X.509 self-signed certificate which is wrapped in turn into a single-element certificate chain. We store the certificate chain and the private key in the Keystore file sender_keystore.p12, which we can process using the KeyStore API.

Here, we've used the PKCS12 key store format, as it is the standard and recommended over the Java-proprietary JKS format. Also, we should remember the password and alias, as we'll use them in the next subsection when loading the Keystore file.

4.2. Loading the Private Key for Signing

In order to sign a message, we need an instance of the PrivateKey.

Using the KeyStore API, and the previous Keystore file, sender_keystore.p12, we can get a PrivateKey object:

KeyStore keyStore = KeyStore.getInstance("PKCS12");
keyStore.load(new FileInputStream("sender_keystore.p12"), "changeit");
PrivateKey privateKey = 
  (PrivateKey) keyStore.getKey("senderKeyPair", "changeit");

4.3. Publishing the Public Key

Before we can publish the public key, we must first decide whether we're going to use a self-signed certificate or a CA-signed certificate.

When using a self-signed certificate, we need only to export it from the Keystore file. We can do this with the exportcert command:

keytool -exportcert -alias senderKeyPair -storetype PKCS12 \
  -keystore sender_keystore.p12 -file \
  sender_certificate.cer -rfc -storepass changeit

Otherwise, if we're going to work with a CA-signed certificate, then we need to create a certificate signing request (CSR). We do this with the certreq command:

keytool -certreq -alias senderKeyPair -storetype PKCS12 \
  -keystore sender_keystore.p12 -file -rfc \
  -storepass changeit > sender_certificate.csr

The CSR file, sender_certificate.csr, is then sent to a Certificate Authority for the purpose of signing. When this is done, we'll receive a signed public key wrapped in an X.509 certificate, either in binary (DER) or text (PEM) format. Here, we've used the rfc option for a PEM format.

The public key we received from the CA, sender_certificate.cer, has now been signed by a CA and can be made available for clients.

4.4. Loading a Public Key for Verification

Having access to the public key, a receiver can load it into their Keystore using the importcert command:

keytool -importcert -alias receiverKeyPair -storetype PKCS12 \
  -keystore receiver_keystore.p12 -file \
  sender_certificate.cer -rfc -storepass changeit

And using the KeyStore API as before, we can get a PublicKey instance:

KeyStore keyStore = KeyStore.getInstance("PKCS12");
keyStore.load(new FileInputStream("receiver_keytore.p12"), "changeit");
Certificate certificate = keyStore.getCertificate("receiverKeyPair");
PublicKey publicKey = certificate.getPublicKey();

Now that we have a PrivateKey instance on the sender side, and an instance of the PublicKey on the receiver side, we can start the process of signing and verification.

5. Digital Signature with MessageDigest and Cipher Classes

As we have seen, the digital signature is based on hashing and encryption.

Usually, we use the MessageDigest class with SHA or MD5 for hashing and the Cipher class for encryption.

Now, let's start implementing the digital signature mechanisms.

5.1. Generating a Message Hash

A message can be a string, a file, or any other data. So let's take the content of a simple file:

byte[] messageBytes = Files.readAllBytes(Paths.get("message.txt"));

Now, using MessageDigest, let's use the digest method to generate a hash:

MessageDigest md = MessageDigest.getInstance("SHA-256");
byte[] messageHash = md.digest(messageBytes);

Here, we've used the SHA-256 algorithm, which is the one most commonly used. Other alternatives are MD5, SHA-384, and SHA-512.

5.2. Encrypting the Generated Hash

To encrypt a message, we need an algorithm and a private key. Here we'll use the RSA algorithm. The DSA algorithm is another option.

Let's create a Cipher instance and initialize it for encryption. Then we'll call the doFinal() method to encrypt the previously hashed message:

Cipher cipher = Cipher.getInstance("RSA");
cipher.init(Cipher.ENCRYPT_MODE, privateKey);
byte[] digitalSignature = cipher.doFinal(messageHash);

The signature can be saved into a file for sending it later:

Files.write(Paths.get("digital_signature_1"), digitalSignature);

At this point, the message, the digital signature, the public key, and the algorithm are all sent, and the receiver can use these pieces of information to verify the integrity of the message.

5.3. Verifying Signature

When we receive a message, we must verify its signature. To do so, we decrypt the received encrypted hash and compare it with a hash we make of the received message.

Let's read the received digital signature:

byte[] encryptedMessageHash = 
  Files.readAllBytes(Paths.get("digital_signature_1"));

For decryption, we create a Cipher instance. Then we call the doFinal method:

Cipher cipher = Cipher.getInstance("RSA");
cipher.init(Cipher.DECRYPT_MODE, publicKey);
byte[] decryptedMessageHash = cipher.doFinal(encryptedMessageHash);

Next, we generate a new message hash from the received message:

byte[] messageBytes = Files.readAllBytes(Paths.get("message.txt"));

MessageDigest md = MessageDigest.getInstance("SHA-256");
byte[] newMessageHash = md.digest(messageBytes);

And finally, we check if the newly generated message hash matches the decrypted one:

boolean isCorrect = Arrays.equals(decryptedMessageHash, newMessageHash);

In this example, we've used the text file message.txt to simulate a message we want to send, or the location of the body of a message we've received. Normally, we'd expect to receive our message alongside the signature.

6. Digital Signature Using the Signature Class

So far, we've used the low-level APIs to build our own digital signature verification process. This helps us understand how it works and allows us to customize it.

However, JCA already offers a dedicated API in the form of the Signature class.

6.1. Signing a Message

To start the process of signing, we first create an instance of the Signature class. To do that, we need a signing algorithm. We then initialize the Signature with our private key:

Signature signature = Signature.getInstance("SHA256withRSA");
signature.initSign(privateKey);

The signing algorithm we chose, SHA256withRSA in this example, is a combination of a hashing algorithm and an encryption algorithm. Other alternatives include SHA1withRSA, SHA1withDSA, and MD5withRSA, among others.

Next, we proceed to sign the byte array of the message:

byte[] messageBytes = Files.readAllBytes(Paths.get("message.txt"));

signature.update(messageBytes);
byte[] digitalSignature = signature.sign();

We can save the signature into a file for later transmission:

Files.write(Paths.get("digital_signature_2"), digitalSignature);

6.2. Verifying the Signature

To verify the received signature, we again create a Signature instance:

Signature signature = Signature.getInstance("SHA256withRSA");

Next, we initialize the Signature object for verification by calling the initVerify method, which takes a public key:

signature.initVerify(publicKey);

Then, we need to add the received message bytes to the signature object by invoking the update method:

byte[] messageBytes = Files.readAllBytes(Paths.get("message.txt"));

signature.update(messageBytes);

And finally, we can call check the signature by calling the verify method:

boolean isCorrect = signature.verify(receivedSignature);

7. Conclusion

In this article, we first looked at how digital signature works and how to establish trust for a digital certificate. Then we implemented a digital signature using the MessageDigest, Cipher, and Signature classes from the Java Cryptography Architecture.

We saw in detail how to sign data using the private key and how to verify the signature using a public key.

As always, the code from this article is available over on GitHub.

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Jose Urdaneta
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Jose Urdaneta

I believe you can not decrypt anything using a public key. Public keys are set fon encryption only.

Eric Martin
Member
Eric Martin

Hello Jose, Thank you for your comment. If data is encrypted with a private key, it can be decrypted with the corresponding public key. Of course, it’s not very useful encryption: anyone can decrypt it, since the public key is well, public. But this is precisely why they choose this mechanism for identity verification. Because only one person knows the private key, if she encrypts some data with it, it verifies her identity. You only have to try to decrypt it with the public key. If it’s successful, it means that it was encrypted with the private key hence, by… Read more »

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