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Digital Certificates

Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) is based on the principles of asymmetric cryptography: messages are encoded using the recipient’s public key, and the recipient decodes the message using her private key. However, how do we know that the public key we are using indeed belongs to the intended recipient? What if the public key is a forgery and belongs to an impersonator? A digital certificate helps to establish whether a public key truly belongs to the purported owner. Just like a physical certificate of identification such as a driver’s license or a passport, a digital certificate provides information about an individual along with her/his public key and helps anybody else verify the identity of that individual. The certificate also contains one or more digital signatures, which indicate that the information in the certificate has been attested by some other trustworthy person or entity, known as a certificate authority. We will cover more about certificate authorities in a subsequent article.

Types of digital certificates

The main types of digital certificates that are used today are:

1. Server certificates: These implement the SSL/TLS (Secure Sockets Layer / Transport Layer Security) standards, are installed on the server, and are best known to have enabled the boom in e-commerce implementations by helping secure the communication channel between the client and server. SSL certificates in turn are of three types:

2. Domain Validation (DV) certificates: These only verify that the certificate owner has the right to use the domain name; however, they don’t certify who the owner is. Since they involve only basic validation, they are cheap and can be obtained instantly from the certificate provider. DV certificates are typically used for basic web sites and web applications.

3. Organization Validation (OV) certificates: These provide additional assurances about the certificate holder and include validations about the organization, domain ownership, and whether the applicant is authorized to apply for the certificate. OV certificates are a good option for e-commerce web sites.

4. Extended Validation (EV) certificates: These offer the highest levels of encryption and follow a strict authentication process before the certificate is issued. EV certificates are typically used by banks and financial institutions, as well as e-commerce applications.

5. Organization certificates: These are typically used by corporate entities and help to identify employees for secure web transactions and email communication.

6. Client / Personal certificates: These are “digital IDs” that help to verify an individual’s identity and also help to control the access that individuals have to information and data. In general, certificate-based authentication is far superior to a traditional User ID and password-based authentication mechanism. Personal certificates can also be used for document signing purposes. These certificates are also helpful in Business to Business (B2B) scenarios – for example, allowing suppliers and partners to access and update specific information such as shipping dates or inventory availability.

7. Code signing certificates: These provide the ability to digitally sign software before it is distributed, typically over the internet, for downloading. These certificates help the recipients downloading and installing software to verify that the code is from an authentic source and that it has not been altered e.g. by the insertion of malware before reaching the recipient.

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