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What Is an SSL Certificate?

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SSL Certificate Definition

A secure sockets layer (SSL) certificate refers to a file hosted within the webpage's origin server, which holds the data that browsers access when you are viewing and interacting with the page. 

How do SSL certificates work? An SSL certificate has the website’s public key, as well as information specific to the site’s identity. For transport layer security (TLS)/SSL encryption to work, devices trying to interface with the website need the site’s public key, which identifies the server hosting the site. This is an essential element of the handshake that takes place when your browser connects with a site with TLS/SSL.

What is TLS? TLS is a protocol that uses cryptography to provide a secure connection between applications interacting with each other on the internet. It is a better version of SSL. Without the public key held within the SSL certificate, a TLS-secured connection cannot happen.

What Are the Elements of an SSL Certificate?

An SSL certificate contains crucial information that serves to validate the certificate and associate it with the domain it is designed to help protect.

Domain Name

The domain name refers to the name of the website, such as “Fortinet.com” or “Google.com.” A certificate is issued for a specific domain name.

Name of the Organization/Individual to Whom It Is Issued

This identifies the person or organization that either owns the website or helped set it up.

Issuing Authority Name

SSL certificates are issued by certificate authorities (CAs). They include the name of the authority that provided the certificate for the domain.

The Certificate Authority's Digital Signature

The digital signature of the CA ensures the authority listed as such in the SSL certificate is who they claim to be.

Associated Subdomains

An SSL certificate can list subdomains associated with the primary domain. The subdomain comes before the primary domain in the address of a site. For example, in the address “docs.google.com,” “docs” is the subdomain.

Date of Issue

This indicates the date the SSL certificate was issued and associated with the domain and subdomains.

Expiration Date

The expiration date tells you when the SSL certificate will expire. This is typically one to two years from the date of issue.

The Public Key

The public key consists of a string of numbers, letters, and characters used in the encryption and decryption of data sent between the site and users' browsers. The data encrypted by the public key can be decrypted using the private key.

Types of SSL Certificates

There are different kinds of SSL certificates, and the one you choose will often depend on the needs of your organization. However, because each type of certificate provides different levels of assurance regarding the identity of the business, you may want to opt for either an organizationally validated certificate or an extended validation because they may enhance the trust visitors have in your site and company.

Domain Validated (DV)

To obtain a domain-validated certificate, the CA merely sends an email to the email address the website has registered. This serves to confirm the identity of the site. However, a domain-validated certificate does not require any information about the business, so it offers the lowest level of security when compared to the other two types.

Organizationally Validated (OV)

Before issuing an organizationally validated certificate, the certificate authority needs to obtain a few details about the organization. These include where it is physically located and its domain name. This may take a few days. If your site does not deal with highly sensitive information, an OV may be sufficient.

Extended Validation (EV)

An extended validation certificate is not issued until the CA has performed a thorough review of the business applying for it. The review process may include elements such as:

  1. Documents verifying the identity of the applicant
  2. Corporate documents of the business

Also, the information is checked against information provided by an independent third party, which serves to confirm its validity.

What Is a Wildcard SSL Certificate?

For your website to earn the trust of a wide range of visitors, an SSL certificate is essential. It facilitates TLS connections, ensuring the data that users send to and receive from your site is encrypted. This is one of the primary SSL certificate benefits.

An SSL certificate also makes a statement that you are who you say you are. If your site does not have an SSL certificate and a hacker puts together a site that looks like yours with a similar domain name, then people may mistake the hacker’s site for yours. The hacker may also get a domain validated (DV) SSL certificate that would give visitors at least a level of comfort. This could reflect poorly on your company, particularly when visitors go to “your” site only to have someone try to steal their personal information or put adware or other malware on their computer.

Further, an SSL certificate aids in securing:

  1. Users’ login credentials
  2. Credit card info and bank account details
  3. Customers’ personally identifiable information (PII), including their complete names, addresses, dates of birth, or contact info
  4. Sensitive company information they may provide while on your site
  5. Contracts and legal documents
  6. Medical records

For these reasons, many companies decide to begin the process of getting their SSL certificate, starting with the Certificate Signing Request (CSR) with the CA. Also, after getting an SSL certificate, your site can have the Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS) label that helps earn the trust of users.  

Why Do Websites Need an SSL Certificate?

With an SSL certificate, interactions people and companies have with your website remain private. This includes personal information that customers may be asked to provide on your website. When you encrypt this information, an eavesdropper—if they are able to hack into the connection—gets a bunch of unusable data that would be impossible to decipher without the encryption key.

On the other hand, if your site does not have an SSL certificate, you cannot take advantage of the encryption provided by TLS. A hacker then has a far easier time acquiring the information of someone using your website if they find a way to “listen in” on the “conversation” between your site and one of its visitors. This kind of eavesdropping is an important consideration, particularly because so many users opt to connect to business sites while signed in to public networks with little or no security.

In addition to the safety of visitors on your site, SSL certificates play a key role in the communications that happen with email servers, between servers, with web-based applications, and more.

How Fortinet Can Help?

It is important to keep in mind that even though having an SSL certificate encrypts the traffic between your site and users, it does not protect your site’s applications—or the user—from malicious activity. To guard your site against attacks that may compromise your web applications, you need a solution like FortiWeb, the Fortinet web application firewall (WAF).

FortiWeb guards your web applications and application programming interfaces (APIs) from all of the Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP) Top 10 threats. It leverages machine learning to provide advanced threat detection and integrates with the Fortinet Security Fabric, which allows you to seamlessly interface with the FortiSandbox solution and FortiGate firewalls. With FortiWeb, you can take advantage of advanced analytics, reduced false positives, and better throughput, thanks to hardware-based acceleration.

FAQs

What is the purpose of an SSL certificate?

A secure sockets layer (SSL) certificate, which has the same function as a transport layer security (TLS) certificate, has the website’s public key, as well as information specific to the site’s identity. For TLS/SSL encryption to work, devices trying to interface with the website need the site’s public key. The key is used to identify the server hosting the site. This is an essential element of the handshake that takes place when your browser is connecting with a site with TLS/SSL.

What does an SSL certificate mean?

An SSL certificate refers to a file that is hosted within the origin server of a webpage. It contains crucial information that serves to validate the certificate and associate it with the domain it is designed to protect. It helps facilitate a TLS connection.

What is an SSL certificate and why is it important?

An SSL certificate proves the digital identity of your website. For your website to earn the trust of a wide range of visitors, an SSL certificate is essential. It facilitates TLS connections, ensuring the data that users send to and receive from your site is encrypted.

How do I get a SSL certificate?

To get an SSL certificate, you have to reach out to a Certificate Authority (CA), which will then initiate the process of providing you with your certificate.