A digital certificate serves as a computer user’s credentials that let another party verify his/her identity to facilitate a secure online transaction. In essence, a digital certificate acts as proof of someone’s identity. For enterprises, digital certificates serve as a numerical value or a public key cryptographic key that can be used to encrypt data to enable transactions over the Web via a secure connection without fear of compromise.

You can think of a digital certificate as a driver’s license or any proof of identification to validate your identity.

Other interesting terms…

Read More about a Digital Certificate

Digital certificates are critical to security. Find out why here.

What Kind of Security Do Digital Certificates Offer?

Since digital certificates act as a verification step for sending mostly confidential data, there is a need to protect their integrity at all times. The question is: What benefits do digital certificates offer users?  Here are some of them.

1. Data Confidentiality

Users can rely on digital certificates to check if the individual or organization they are communicating with is indeed who it claims to be. Without the public key, the other party cannot access the document or message a sender sends using his/her digital certificate. That assures the sender that no confidential data would leak or get lost or stolen.

2. Data Integrity

Digital certificates ensure that the information sent is free of deliberate changes or tampering during transmission to the intended recipient. That way, everything agreed upon, for instance, in a signed contract cannot be changed once signed.

3. Access Management

The use of digital certificates ensures that only the parties involved in a transaction would have access to documents and other files.

4. Transaction Receipts

The beauty of using a digital certificate lies in non-repudiation. This means that it ensures that both the sender and the receiver cannot deny sending or receiving messages related to the exchange.

What Is the Difference between a Digital Certificate and a Digital Signature?

Both digital certificates and digital signatures rely on public key cryptography, which offers both authentication and encryption. However, digital signatures are often obtained using algorithms for data signing. The resulting information confirms that a public key holder signed a document. Generating a digital signature requires using a one-way cryptographic hash, which randomizes data bits to create a value that can only be read by someone with the right key. If the signature’s hash remains unchanged from when its owner used it, it serves as a go signal for the recipient to treat the signed document as legal and binding.

Digital certificates, on the other hand, require two verified digital signatures (the sender’s and the recipient’s) before documents or files that use them can be considered authentic. That said, digital signatures and digital certificates work hand in hand.

Where Are Digital Certificates Used?

Digital certificates are mainly used to secure online transactions. Some of the typical applications of this public key cryptography method are:

SSL

Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) uses digital certificates for server authentication, key exchange, and client authentication, which are processes critical in determining whether a message sender is who he/she claims to be. This protocol is commonly used in web servers to secure connections between browsers.

Email Security

Most email systems use the Privacy Enhanced Mail (PEM) or Secure/Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (S/MIME), which are file formats used for storing and sending cryptographic keys. To make the exchange of messages as secure as possible, they use digital certificates to verify digital signatures and key exchange to encrypt and decrypt messages.

VPN

Also known as “secure tunnels,” virtual private networks (VPNs) use digital certificates to ensure that communications between secure networks over an unsecured network remains protected.  

SET

Secure Electronic Transaction (SET) is a protocol commonly applied in credit card transactions done over an unsecured network. Digital certificates secure communications for merchants, banks, and cardholders, making all transactions indisputable or unforgeable.

How Do You Get a Digital Certificate?

You can obtain a digital certificate by applying to a certificate authority (CA), which is responsible for generating codes or keys on your behalf. You can then receive your pair of public and private keys and a certificate containing the public key along with a valid CA signature. Note, however, that there may be instances when an applicant may need to personally meet with a CA representative to validate his/her identity.

It is your responsibility to keep your private key secure at all times. Compromised or lost private keys must always be communicated with the issuing CA.

If you don’t want to purchase a digital certificate, you can still digitally sign your documents by creating a self-signed certificate. However, other people who will receive your digitally signed document can’t check its authenticity.

The Internet is not inherently secure. And so, over time, cybercriminals continuously devised ways to exploit the technology’s users for their gain. Digital certificates came to the fore as a means for organizations to safely communicate and engage in online transactions.

Key Takeaways