When someone decides to purchase an SSL certificate for their website, many questions come to their mind (especially if they are new in the business of websites). These questions range from the functionality of SSL certificates to the process of obtaining one. If not answered in time, the buyer can make the wrong choice while purchasing the website’s certificate. If you, too, are having such questions in mind, do not worry. We have got you covered, and in this article, we will try to answer all your questions about SSL certificates.
Table of Contents
Understanding an SSL certificate
An SSL certificate is a digitally signed file installed on any webserver to serve as proof of identity for the server. Once issued in the name of a business and installed by the company on its server, the certificate serves as proof to establish the fact that a particular domain name and web server belongs to a specific business. The certificate is issued by reputed certificate authorities (CAs) only after proper verification of business identity, so every certificate is unique. Multiple certificate authorities are there to protect your online presence like GlobalSign certificate, Comodo SSL certificate, DigiCert certificate, etc. No two people can have SSL certificates issued in the name of the same business.
This saves your business from phishing attacks, a type of cyberattack that is done by creating a fake copy of your website. In addition to that, the SSL certificate also protects your website from one more kind of attack, namely Man-in-The-Middle attacks. We will discuss how it does all of this in greater detail in the following paragraphs.
Decoding a self-signed SSL certificate
A self-signed SSL certificate is not generated and signed by a CA but signed with your digital signature. These certificates, therefore, do not cost any money. However, unlike a certificate issued by the CA, the security offered by them is far less. While having a self-signed certificate is better than not having any certificate at all. However, with self-signed certificate, someone else can intercept your data packets and uncover the information in them with the help of their self-signed certificate.
Delineating information contained in an SSL certificate
An SSL certificate includes a variety of information necessary to establish the owner’s identity and protect the domain name(s). This includes:
- Information about the owner/organization
- Location of owner/organization
- Validity date (the period up to which the certificate will remain valid)
- The digital signature of the CA (your signature in case of a self-signed certificate)
- And a Public key needed to encrypt the information before transit.
Types of SSL certificates
There are various types of SSL certificates available in the market. They can be categorized based on two different criteria, namely:
- The number of domains they can protect
- The type of verification method used to validate a business’s identity before the issuance of the certificate.
First of all, there are three types of certificates based on the number of domains and subdomains they can protect. They’re:
- Single domain SSL certificate: These certificates protect only one domain name. You can’t protect even a subdomain with them.
- Wildcard SSL certificate: Wildcard certificates can protect a domain and all the subdomains created under it. However, a critical condition is that the subdomains must be made under the root domain and not under another subdomain of the root domain.
- Multi-domain SSL certificate: Finally, Multi-domain SSL certificate can protect all your domains and subdomains created under them. No limitations.
Each of these certificates comes in 3 different variants based on the verification method followed in issuing them. Those variants are:
- Domain validated (DV) SSL certificates: These certificates are issued after verification of domain ownership only. These are easiest to get and cheaper to purchase, but that also makes them prone to spoofing in rare situations (such situations are rare, though).
- Organization validated (OV) SSL certificates: These certificates can be purchased only after you prove your business’s existence as a legal entity by submitting the necessary documents. As a result, these certificates are harder to get and cost a little more than DV certificates. Spoofing them is also extremely difficult for any attacker.
- Extended Validation (EV) SSL certificates: Finally, these certificates are issued after your business has been in existence for a certain period. You’re required to submit your business proof documents and the documents that can establish that you’re in business for the last three years. Therefore, these certificates are nearly impossible to be spoofed and cost more than any of the other two variants mentioned above.
With that in mind, now let’s take a look at how an SSL certificate works.
Understanding the workings of an SSL certificate
As we had explained at the beginning of this article, SSL certificates save your website and its visitors from phishing and Man-in-The-Middle attacks. Phishing is a kind of attack in which someone creates a duplicate copy of your website on a similar-looking domain name and then makes your visitors access the clone site by forwarding links through email and other mediums. If your visitors enter their login information and additional sensitive information on that cloned site, it’s sent directly to the fake site’s creator, thus compromising their accounts.
SSL saves your visitors from this kind of attack by adding a unique identifier to your business website. By clicking the green padlock icon near the URL of your website, they can see your SSL certificate, showing them that the website’s certificate has been issued in your name. Other cloned websites can not have a certificate in your business’s name, due to which a “Not Secure” label will be shown near their URL to warn your visitors.
As far as Man-in-The-Middle attacks are concerned, SSL certificates protect your website against them by making it load over HTTPS instead of the default HTTP protocol. HTTPS is a more secure HTTP version because it requires all data to be encrypted before transit between webserver and visitor. So even if an individual or entity (i.e. government, ISP, etc.) manages to capture the data packets being exchanged between your website and its visitors (that’s how a Man-in-The-Middle attack is done), information cannot be extracted from those packets because all data will be encrypted. Only you – the website owner – can decrypt the data with a private key installed on your server along with the SSL certificate.
Process of obtaining an SSL certificate by a website
SSL certificates are issued by reputed Certifying Authorities after proper verification of your business information and identity. The first step to obtaining an SSL certificate is to generate a certificate signing request (CSR) from your hosting dashboard.
Once you generate the CSR, the next step remains to submit the CSR to your preferred SSL vendor. Upon submission of request with all other required information, the CA verifies information submitted by you, and if it’s found genuine, the certificate is generated. You’re sent an email with the link and instructions to download and install the certificate.
Decoding the requirement of an SSL certificate
An SSL certificate is the most important thing a website owner needs in today’s time. Not only because of its security requirements but also because of various other reasons too. The chief reason is SEO – if your website does not have an SSL certificate, it can’t rank on the front page of Google search results for any keyword because Google adopted this policy many years ago. A “Not Secure” label is also shown before your URL, making your visitors feel insecure on the site. If you want to avoid both these things and ensure your visitors’ security, an SSL certificate is a must for your website.
Understanding the creation of a secure connection by an SSL certificate
An SSL certificate creates a secure connection between your website and its visitors by making it eligible for loading over HTTPS protocol. The secure connection is then established as per the TLS handshake method of the protocol. The SSL certificate doesn’t have much of a role in it besides encryption and decryption of data packets with a public key.
So that was everything you may want to know about SSL certificates. We’ve tried to cover almost every aspect of it. Still, if you have any questions, feel free to ask them in the comments. And if not, then get your SSL certificate today for the security of your website and your customers. Because as you might’ve realized based on the information given above, SSL certificates are critical for any website’s security. So get yours as soon as possible!