When it comes to keeping your network secure, your organization needs to ensure only trusted devices can connect. One important way to protect your network from unauthorized access is to use a digital certificate to encrypt connections and communications.
What are digital certificates?
A digital certificate operates as an electronic credential, using the principles of cryptography to authenticate a user, device, or server, working to ensure only verified users or trusted devices can connect to networks, enhancing overall security. This process is part of a larger framework known as the public key infrastructure (PKI). Within a digital certificate, a variety of identifying details are encoded, such as the user's name, affiliation, or department, as well as specific device identifiers like IP address or serial number. Furthermore, the certificate stores a copy of the owner's public key. The authentication process kicks into action when a user attempts to access a network; the system matches the stored public key with the corresponding private key. Successful matching validates the user's identity, granting them network access.
Types of digital certificates
While the basics of digital certificates are the same, there are three different types of digital certificates to consider when working to secure your network. The most common are server certificates, generally known as TLS/SSL certificates, which are mainly used to protect web communications or other machine-to-machine connections or communications. But we also have code signing certificates, which are used to verify the authenticity of applications, and client certificates, which are used to verify the authenticity of client requests to remote servers.
1. TLS/SSL certificate
This type of digital certificate is on a server and is used to make sure communication between a user and the server is encrypted and secure. If a website has this type of digital certificate, it’s signified by the “HTTPS” (or Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure) designation at the beginning of a URL. Even within TLS/SSL certificates, there are three kinds:
- Domain validated. This type of certificate is quick to get and provides a quick verification for any website.
- Organization validated. This certificate is good for e-commerce organizations that need a higher level of verification to sell products.
- Extended validation. This certificate is the highest level of verification. Businesses that need the high levels of verification—like financial institutions—can use this certificate to ensure only secure clients can access the site.
2. Code signing certificate
This type of digital certificate verifies software or files that are downloaded from the internet. The developer gets this certificate to show users that the software hasn’t been tampered with and is ready to download safely.
3. Client certificate
A client certificate verifies an individual to an individual or to a machine. One common example is email. An email client verifies the sender, and then the recipient verifies that the keys match. Databases and other similar clients use this type of certification as well.
Who can issue a digital certificate?
An entity can technically create its own digital certification and PKI to verify internally. But if a company needs public trust, it should get third party digital certificates. A digital certificate from a certificate authority (CA) carries more credibility, and because of that, most certifications come from a CA. If you’re looking to build trust with your verification process, using a CA can be the best route.
Digital certificates vs. digital signatures
Since there are different ways to verify a user, many people are uncertain of the difference between a digital certificate and a digital signature. While they’re similar in that they can both verify and help secure your network, there is a key difference between the two. A digital certificate uses a file to verify the identity and authenticity of a user or device. On the other hand, a digital signature uses a hashing method that creates a numeric string to validate a device.
Benefits of digital certificates
There are many benefits to using digital certificates for your business or organization. Some of the most important benefits are:
- Security. One of the biggest benefits of digital certificates is that they provide security for your network or servers by only allowing verified devices to access them. Verification can help prevent attackers from stealing sensitive data. As cyber attacks continue to increase and grow in sophistication, it’s more important than ever to increase security for your network.
- Scalability. Digital certificates are relatively easy to get issued, revoked, or renewed—which makes them highly scalable. Businesses of all sizes can use digital certificates and manage them in a centralized location.
- Authenticity. Digital certificates provide security, and they can also ensure that communications reach only the intended recipients. Whether through website encryption or client encryption, digital certificates can help you authenticate communication and users.
- Reliability. Digital certificates from an official CA require a rigorous vetting process that can’t be duplicated by a hacker. If you are using a digital certificate from a CA, you can be sure it’s reliable and not set up by a cyber attacker.
- Public trust. An official digital certificate shows the public using your website or client services that you are legitimate, and your documents and materials are authentic. Using digital certificates also shows your customers that you are an organization that values security and privacy, which can go a long way in establishing trust with your customers.
Limitations of digital certificates
Like most things, digital certificates do have limitations as well that are important to be aware of. By preparing for these limitations, you’ll be better able to use digital certificates to their fullest potential. Some of the limitations to prepare for are:
- Slow performance. Encrypting, decrypting, encrypting, and decrypting again can take time. This process does add security and authenticity, but it does have the potential to have an impact on performance. It can be important to emphasize the benefits of using digital certificates to offset the frustration of a slightly longer wait time.
- Integration. While digital certificates are scalable, they do require systems, data, applications, networks and hardware to use. Prepare for this limitation by making sure your company is fully ready for the integration requirements of authentication for all necessary systems.
- Management. The more digital certifications you use, the more you’ll need to manage. It can take a little time and resources to keep track of renewal dates and to apply for certification. For larger organizations, manually managing thousands of digital certificates becomes almost impossible. At that point, automation becomes a key requirement.
Make digital certificate management easy
Overall, digital certificates are a valuable form of authentication that your company can benefit from. The key is to find digital certification that provides the security and trust you need with the right certificate management. Venafi’s solution automates machine identity management to prevent outages and achieve agile development.