Digital certificates are a ubiquitous feature of the digital world; everyone has seen the little lock icon in the corner of their web browser’s address bar indicating that a website is using a trusted digital certificate.  But what is a digital certificate and why should you care?

What Is a Digital Certificate?

A digital certificate (also known as a Public Key Certificate or Identity Certificate) is a type of digital document that is attached to other documents or digital communications to prove identity, facilitate secure communications, and ensure data integrity on the internet and other network environments.  A digital certificate includes uniquely identifying information about the certificate holder and mechanisms for ensuring that the identity cannot be forged, and that an imposter cannot successfully impersonate the certificate holder.

Why Should I Care?

The internet is an open communications platform that was originally designed to allow academics to freely communicate and share information.  Security and privacy were not significant considerations in the early days of the internet and most of the underlying technologies still bear that legacy.  As the internet grew, and ever more systems and users began to connect to it, malicious actors found ways to exploit this insecure architecture to eavesdrop on private communications, infiltrate systems they were not authorized to access, and manipulate systems and data for their own purposes.

Today, surveillance and unwanted manipulation of internet communications is no longer limited to hackers but has expanded to include most national governments and many large internet service and content providers interested in monetizing or otherwise leveraging the information they can gain through watching what services we use, what content we consume or create, and who we communicate with.  Various methods for protecting communications and safeguarding systems and data have been developed to combat these threats, and digital certificates are one of the most visible and widely used.

What Do Digital Certificates Do?

Digital certificates have a variety of uses in securing and verifying digital information, including identity verification, confidentiality, access control, tamper detection, and non-repudiation.

The most obvious example focuses on securing an eCommerce transaction using an SSL Certificate; however, there are many other uses for digital certificates, including:

  • Securing any type of transaction with a web server using SSL, not just eCommerce.  This ensures that private messages stay private, location and identity data is not accidentally leaked, and login account information cannot be intercepted.
  • Signing and encrypting email messages to ensure that only the intended recipient can read the message and be confident that it came from a legitimate sender.
  • Creating an encrypted communications “tunnel”, called a Virtual Private Network (VPN), between a user and their office network to allow remote access to business resources without exposing those resources to the Internet.
  • Signing and encrypting sensitive documents to prevent unauthorized use, and to prevent copying or transmission of the document.
  • Validating identity before allowing login or access to digital services and data.
  • Guaranteeing that a software program or “app” was published by the purported developer and has not been altered.  This is known as “code signing” and helps prevent a type of attack known as “sideloading”, in which an attacker injects malicious code into a legitimate program or update and tricks users into installing it.

Do I Need to Use Digital Certificates?

Digital certificates authenticate identity, ensure privacy, and verify data integrity.  Without these capabilities, we cannot be certain that we are communicating with the intended recipient, free from eavesdropping, and that the exchanged information is not altered in transit.  The information contained in even seemingly innocuous and uninteresting digital communications can reveal a surprising amount of sensitive information about both the sender and the recipient.

Interested parties who manage to intercept this information can use it in many novel ways to fingerprint, identify, and track individuals and groups, profile behavior patterns, gather intelligence about networks and systems, and more.  The reasons for this type of surveillance are diverse and include targeted advertising; mapping relationships between entities; planning a network infiltration; “phishing” attacks; stealing sensitive information; or injecting false data into information exchanges.  For these reasons, digital certificates are essential for any business, organization or individual that has a website or uses email to communicate with customers, partners, suppliers, and other entities.

Failure to protect publicly accessible websites with a valid SSL certificate issued by a reputable Certificate Authority can leave an organization more vulnerable to network infiltration, site defacement and data theft, and erodes visitor confidence in the trustworthiness of both the website and the organization.  Because of the varied and persistent nature of threats to unsecured communication, most web browsers are now alerting users when their communications are not encrypted, or using outdated encryption techniques, which can be quite alarming to website visitors.

Further, some industries, such as any that handle customer credit cards, health care service providers, financial services companies, and many others, are subject to state and federal regulatory oversight that require the use digital certificates in a variety of situations, including website and transaction security, customer data confidentiality and more.

How Do I Obtain a Digital Certificate?

Digital certificates can be purchased from a variety of vendors and can be tailored to suite your business needs. For assistance in determining the right digital certificate for your business, contact our specialists for a consultation.