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Certificate Authorities: Who Are They and What Do They Do?

Certificate Authorities: Who Are They and What Do They Do?

We’re finally at a stage where people are more aware of data security and privacy. In addition to this, the ongoing pandemic has increased remote workforces, which has made practicing cybersecurity even crucial.

But is the internet still secure enough? This is where Certificate Authority (CA) comes in. You see, whenever you visit a website that starts with HTTPS, you’re using a CA. In fact, if CAs didn’t exist, web browsing would be very different from what you know it to be. Paying taxes, shopping online, online banking – none of this would‘ve been possible.

Read on as we discuss what a Certificate Authority actually means and how these organizations work to keep us safe from hackers when we are on the internet.

What is a Certificate Authority?

The personal income of households has increased by 0.5%, according to estimates released in November 2019 by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA). This, in turn, has made them more open to taking advantage of online convenience in the form of banking, shopping, and so on. It also translates to more visits to a bank’s website or webpages where they ask you to feed your bank details.

Now, we‘re already aware of how things are not always what they seem on the internet. You may think you‘re visiting the website of a specific company where even the domain claims the same – but how do you verify that you’re actually connected to a server that is being run by the same company? What if it’s built by a hacker who wants to steal your private data?

It is this problem that is solved by a CA. They let you know that you’re connected to the real website by verifying websites or organizations, so you’re less inclined to accidentally send your bank account details to a hacker.

To get more technical, a Certificate Authority, also known as a certification authority or CA, is a trusted organization that looks after the verification of such websites and other entities. It helps visitors know who they are communicating with online, making the internet a lot more secure for organizations and users alike. Basically, a CA has a crucial role in digital security – and digital trust.

Anyone can check whether a domain has been verified by clicking on the padlock in the browser bar. Give it a try. You can easily view the SSL/TLS certificate details for a particular site, knowing there are cryptographic systems at work behind it

The rising awareness about CAs has also resulted a similar increase in misconceptions, which is why it's necessary for users to get access to correct information and avoid falling prey to bad actors online. 

What does CA do to keep visitors safe from hackers?

Essentially, CAs verify websites to determine whether they‘re trustworthy or not. There are, of course, specific vulnerabilities that have to be considered, but these authorities are definitely a good indicator of trust.

A CA is responsible for carrying out three major tasks, which are as follows:

1. Confirms the identity of the certificate owner
Information identity is generally embedded in a certificate. What a CA does is guarantees its validity.

2. Issues certificates
It’s necessary for every computing resource as well as users to have an identity, along with a way to prove its validity. The most common computing resources include an SSH server or a website. CA issues certificates as a way to validate identities.

You can consider a certificate as an electronic version of a “driver’s license.“ In other words, it’s a file that contains information about the identity of its owner.

3. Provides proof about the validity of certificates
Another responsibility of a CA is to guarantee the validity of a certificate. A certificate usually becomes invalid due to the following reasons:

  • Upon expiry – just like a driver’s license.
  • After it has been revoked.
  • When it has been tampered with.

The main job of a CA is to provide proof that a given certificate is valid. They do this by vouching for the authenticity of the certificate, which, in turn, enables the site to enjoy greater trust from the visitors. But this shouldn’t surprise anyone, as today more than 63.7% of all websites use HTTPS, the secure version of the HTTP protocol. 

In fact, certificates are not only websites but for ensuring better security levels for IoT devices and cloud as well.

How does a Certificate Authority work?

With the responsibilities covered, let’s discuss how exactly does a CA work.

It starts with a requester making a private key and public key pair. The requester then submits an application called a certificate signing request (CSR) to a trusted Certificate Authority. The CSR has all the relevant information about the request that will be shown on the resulting certificate – if approved.

After receiving the request, the Certificate Authority then verifies the authenticity of the information on the CSR. When the request is found to be credible, the Certificate Authority issues and assigns a certificate using its private key, which is then passed on to the requester to use.

Some CAs might issue a set of challenges to the requester as well. This is mainly done to make sure that the requested domain is actually controlled by the requester. At times, the requester must sign with its private key to prove control of the key pair. Once these challenges and signing are confirmed complete, the requester is then authorized to request, renew, and revoke certificates for their site.

In the end, the requester can use the signed certificate for the appropriate control – HTTPS for web access and SSH for remote server access. 

Once they get the stamp of approval, even if websites alter or configure infrastructure, visitors can rest easy knowing that it’s the actual owner who has made the changes, and not a hacker looking to take advantage of unsuspecting individuals.

Protecting digital identities, one cert at a time

The internet is ironic. While it does give you access to any information that you may require and an unparalleled level of convenience, it’s a relatively insecure place when it comes to data and privacy.

You’ll find several looming threats in the form of data breaches, identity theft, cyber attacks, and whatnot. This – when put against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic – has only worsened things, which is why improving cyber defenses should be everyone’s priority.

The existence of trusted third parties like CAs helps to make the internet a more secure place for everyone – users and organizations alike. Every website should definitely have an SSL/TLS certificate in a bid to keep cybercrime events, along with the costs associated with them, to the very minimum.

Note: This blog article was written by a guest contributor for the purpose of offering a wider variety of content for our readers. The opinions expressed in this guest author article are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect those of GlobalSign.

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