What is a Digital Certificate?

Part 1 of 3

In this three-part series of articles, I will attempt to explain the importance of digital certificates, why they should be protected, how to protect them and future considerations.

Firstly, it is important to know what a digital certificate is. A digital certificate is an electronic document used to verify digital information’s authenticity and integrity. It serves as a form of identification, like a passport or driver’s license, in the physical world. Digital certificates are commonly used in online transactions, secure communications, and verifying individuals’ or organizations’ identities online.

Digital certificates are based on Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) technology. They are issued by trusted third-party organizations known as Certificate Authorities (CAs). The CA verifies the certificate holder’s identity and digitally signs the certificate to vouch for its authenticity. This process ensures that other parties can trust the certificate.

To better understand the role of a Certificate Authority (CA), let us use the example of an International Passport. Your passport is issued to you by your Country of Citizenship. Your Country’s passport authority will ask you to provide several identification documents to confirm your identity. That means when you travel to a foreign country, the border officials can trust that you are the person described in your passport because there is the assumption that your government has followed internationally accepted procedures to verify your identity. In this example, your Country’s passport authority performs the same role as a Certificate Authority (CA). A self-created ID card would not be accepted at an international border because a third party has not verified it.

Digital certificates contain information such as the holder’s name, serial number, expiration date, public key, and the digital signature of the issuing CA. The public key allows others to encrypt data or verify digital signatures associated with the certificate.

Digital certificates are used for various purposes like:

Websites: SSL/TLS certificates secure websites and enable encrypted connections (HTTPS). When you visit an HTTPS website, you can view the digital certificate by clicking on the padlock icon in the browser’s address bar.

Email: Digital certificates can be used to sign and encrypt email communications. Email clients often have options to view the digital certificate associated with a signed email.

Software: Digital certificates are often used to sign software applications, ensuring their integrity and authenticity. You can view these certificates by checking the properties or details of the software file.

Document signing: Digital certificates can be used to sign PDF documents and other files. You can usually view the certificate details when you open a digitally signed document.

Part 2 of this series will explain how digital certificates work.

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Henry Omodara | Chief Technology Officer | Axanto Blogs

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One response to “What is a Digital Certificate?”

  1. […] the Certificate Authority (CA), I hope you remember the International Passport analogy used in Part 1, otherwise, this is a good time for a […]

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