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Certificate Management

What Is Certificate Management?

Digital certificate management is also referred to as X.509 certificate management, and it includes the monitoring and control of digital certificates to prevent network disruption. For those looking into how to manage certificates, the certificate management lifecycle includes the discovery of valid certificates, their dissemination, and their certificate renewal, when appropriate.

Certificate management is important because it ensures that only authorized individuals can gain access to network resources. This supports an organization's overall network security strategy because it limits—or eliminates—the number of unauthorized users, preventing the introduction of malware and other threats into the system. When the entire certificate infrastructure is monitored, you benefit through a more organized system of checking and maintaining certificates, as well as making sure only the right people have access to sensitive or exploitable resources.

What Is a Digital Certificate?

Many wonder, "How do I get a digital certificate?" A digital certificate is an electronic password issued by an external party, known as a certificate authority (CA). They are used to authenticate the identity of a user or device. It is important for a network to be able to trust those who have gained access to it, particularly because once a user or device has been connected, they have the power to destroy, change, or exploit connected resources.

Secure sockets layer/transport layer security (SSL/TLS) certificates serve as the digital identifier of endpoints on a network. They make sure that whatever interacts with the endpoint is legitimate.

How Are They Used?

CAs play the role of digital certificate issuers. Each certificate the CA issues gets signed and individually verified by the client prior to a connection between the client and your organization’s server. If a CA does not issue a certificate, users may not be able to trust what they are interacting with. This can lead to a website being blocked because it may be seen as a threat to visitors.

How Do They Work?

Certificates get installed on a device, on a website, or in an application. Typically, the certificate is installed using a file, and the process varies depending on where the installation happens. Digital certificates assist in the encryption and decryption of transmitted data by requiring the appropriate certificate before the cryptographic process can do its work. 

In this way, certificates support encryption security. They play an important role in a TLS handshake because when the server says “hello” to the client, it needs to present its certificate as part of verifying the legitimacy of its identity.

Certificate Challenges

Certificates need to be managed to maintain connectivity and an orderly system. Each certificate has several inherent variables. They have different expiration dates, are issued by various CAs, and they each have different vulnerabilities that have to be addressed.

With an expired certificate, a user may not be able to connect because their device cannot be authenticated. If private keys are not kept secure, a malicious actor can use them to gain unauthorized access. If a CA is compromised, bad actors can take advantage of the situation and provide digital backdoors for themselves or other hackers attempting to find a way into the network.

How Certificate Management Works Within a Public Key Infrastructure (PKI)

A network’s PKI refers to its public key infrastructure, which organizes the access credentials of the various devices on the network. A certificate serves as an endpoint's digital identity and is therefore a crucial element of PKI. PKI is managed through generating, revoking, or suspending digital certificates, as well as overseeing how they are distributed and renewed. 

PKI is responsible for issuing certificates for authentication, identification, and encryption, which enables each device on the network to connect without compromising the safety of the system. SSL/TLS certificates play a critical role in PKI because they are a key component of the TLS handshake that needs to happen before a device can connect to the network.

Stages of a Certificate Management System

Certificates must undergo a lifecycle that begins when they are issued. The following stages are all part of the certificate management system.

Discovery

Certificate discovery involves checking the network’s infrastructure to figure out where the certificates are installed and to ensure they have been properly implemented. The entire network is scanned and examined to ascertain the validity of each certificate, as well as any bugs that can result in vulnerabilities. 

If a certificate is unknown, for example, it has an unknown issuer, and there exists the possibility that it was designed by a hacker desiring to use it to penetrate the network.

Creation

You can create a certificate using free software tools, and you can also buy a signed certificate for a fee. A private key is used in conjunction with an algorithm to encrypt code and decrypt it. A certificate signing request (CSR) consists of a message that is transferred between an applicant in the process of applying for a digital certificate and a registration authority.

Stockage

Certificates are typically stored in a specific location on a computer or server—in the cloud or on-premises—that is especially designated for keeping certificates. They are valid for a maximum of two years. Some of the advantages of a centralized list of certificates are they can all be protected under one roof and managed and checked behind a single pane of glass, all with the help of automation, making it easier to organize and implement secure access. 

This also helps DevOps teams organize who is allowed to access business-critical applications.

Surveillance

Digital certificates are monitored by a management system to know which ones have been used, including by whom, when, and why they were used. Because this information can be issued through a reporting system, administrators can quickly check on the statuses of certificates.

Renewal

Renewing your certificate once the validity period expires is typically done within an application's certificate management pane. In the renewal process, the user has to verify their identity, and new private and public keys have to be created. Otherwise, the old keys can be used in an attempt to compromise the network.

Revocation

Revocation is the second option when a certificate nears the end of its lifecycle. When revoking certificates, the issuer typically checks to see which ones have been used, revoking those that have been dormant. Within a certificate management system, you can see each certificate and the information associated with it. This is where revocation occurs. 

A certificate may need to be revoked instead of renewed if it has been lost. If a lost certificate were to fall into the wrong hands, the system can become vulnerable. Similarly, a certificate will need to be revoked if it is stolen, which prevents an unauthorized entity from penetrating the network.

Certificate Management Use Cases

Certificate management is particularly critical for certain types of websites and services. These include portals, virtual private network (VPN) deployment, financial sites, mobile devices, Internet-of-Things (IoT) devices, and encryption email signing.

Improve Your SSL Certificate Management

Fortinet identity and access management (IAM) provides organizations with the ability to manage who is able to access resources, as well as prevent unauthorized access by both people and devices. Fortinet IAM has a customizable certificate management porthole, making it a flexible, adjustable solution for your security needs.

FortiAuthenticator enables you to identify users on the network using two-factor authentication (2FA) with the help of FortiToken. FortiAuthenticator includes certificate management for wireless and VPN deployment, giving you control over who connects to these services, whether internal employees, remote workers, or temporary guests.