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Home Blog Public Key Certificates: What it is & the Importance in Cybersecurity

Public Key Certificates: What it is & the Importance in Cybersecurity

July 18, 2023

Contributing Author: Alley Bardon

9 mins read

In the world of cryptography, complex layers of security embedded within one another are necessary, especially as the prevalence of cybersecurity threats continues to rise. Recognizing the unique need for encryption for sending all types of messages across digital platforms, cybersecurity professionals have come to rely on the public key certificate. 

Anyone looking to kickstart a career in cybersecurity or information technology should have an in-depth understanding of what a public key certificate is and the vital role it plays in today's digital world. 

What is a Public Key Certificate?

A public key certificate is a digital document that verifies that the sender of online information is authorized to share that information. Essentially, a public key certificate relies on advanced cryptography to connect a key holder to a specific entity. 

The most recognizable type of public key certificate to the general public is an SSL (secure sockets layer) certificate. These are used to validate a website’s identity and have become more critical and common to ensure user and ecommerce security. If you have ever received a message about an ‘unsafe’ website, it was likely because a lack of (or issue with) the SSL certificate. 

Anyone who wishes to obtain a public key certificate for a specific entity or organization must acquire one through a certificate authority, which is a neutral third party that will verify the credentials for the public key certificate. 

Importance of a Public Key Certificate

Public key certificates play an important role in online security because they provide verified assurance that the party sending information can be trusted. Given the fact that a trusted outside party issues these certificates, users can be confident that the information they are receiving is safe and reliable. 

Public key certificates also are important because: 

  • They provide valuable and accurate information about the identity of the key holder 
  • They contain a digital signature proving that the contents of the public certificate have been verified by an outside source or issuer 
  • They allow for secure, streamlined digital communication between two parties 

Why Consumers Should Care

Consumers often place inherent trust in technology, particularly as they become more adept at maneuvering through the digital world. Not long ago, most consumers still felt online transactions were cumbersome, and it was difficult to navigate many of the more complicated digital platforms. Today, however, many have become accustomed to interacting with their favorite brands and organizations in the digital sphere, often preferring online-based transactions versus traditional, in-person interactions. 

The fact of the matter remains that consumers should very much care about cybersecurity, and they should be aware of the layers of protection that are (or are not) in place. Consumers should care about public key infrastructure because it protects and promotes data protection as well as authenticates the transportation of information in the online world. 

How Do Public Key Certificates Work?

Public key certificates are an integral part of public key infrastructure because these digital certificates actively work to secure data and information sent online. When any public key certificate is issued, there are two encryption keys involved. One of the encryption keys is a public key, while the other is private. True to its name, the private key is never revealed and is designed to be completely unique. The public key, however, can be shared to verify the authenticity of the messenger. Essentially, a public key certificate allows an individual to electronically sign documents without the fear of identity theft or impersonation. 

Encrypting and Coding

Encryption technology is integral to the functionality of a public key certificate. High-level coding is required to create a public key certificate that can be verified and authenticated, which is one of the reasons why public key certificates are considered a vital safeguard in the world of cybersecurity. 

Registering Authority

Registering authority is a critical component of the public key certificate enrollment process. Essentially, the registering authority will receive all virtual signing requests and verify that those requests are both accurate and secure. Registering authority is required for anyone obtaining an initial public key certificate or entities looking to renew their public certificate. 

Access Management

Overall, digital certificates play an important role in any access management strategy, as they ensure that the approved parties have access to specific, confidential information. They are part of a layered plan to ensure that online transactions and communications are secure. 

When Public Keys Are Generated

Public keys are generated when those seeking one request them from the certificate authorities. These are the parties that are eligible to request a public key certificate: 

  • Individuals 
  • Businesses 
  • Websites 

What a Public Key Certificate Contains

A public key certificate contains a wealth of information to help verify the validity of the user and the subsequent transaction. A public key certificate may contain the following components: 

  • Issuer Name — The issuer name is one of the most critical components of the public key certificate, as it proves that it has been issued by one of the valid certificate authorities. 
  • Certificate Validity Information — Public key certificates are issued for a specific period of time. There is a date range for which the certificate is valid, and if not renewed promptly, it can expire. The public key certificate will offer insight into the date the certificate was obtained as well as the date on which the certificate will no longer be valid. 
  • Serial Number of the Certificate — Every public key certificate receives a unique serial number, which is displayed as part of the certificate. This serial number authenticates the certificate and proves that it was obtained through a trusted third-party certificate authority. 
  • Identity Name — This is the name of the individual, organization, or website address that requested the public certificate. 
  • Public Key Information — The public key information contains information about the public key that was obtained by the identified individual or organization. 
  • Algorithm Data — The certificate authorities rely on advanced algorithms to sign and confirm the certificate. The algorithm information is available as part of the public key certificate. 

Validating Digital Documents

There are several distinct ways that public key certificates work to validate digital documents. These include: 

  • Rapid Validation — Rapid validation is the quickest way for public key certificates to validate digital documents. This is typically done through domain-verified certificates, which validate a specific domain and confirm its authenticity. 
  • Company Authentication — Relied heavily upon by organizations that offer e-commerce transactions, company authentication is a relatively simple way to validate digital documents and communications. 
  • Corporate Authentication — Preferred by larger organizations that require more complex and layered security measures, corporate authentication relies on multi-layer certificates that provide comprehensive verification for all types of transactions and interactions. 

Authenticity and Security

Public key certificates can add a sense of authenticity and security to any transaction or interaction online, largely because they have been verified by a trusted, third-party source. The certificate authorities are critical to the overall success of public key certificates and the trust that individuals and organizations place in them. 

How are Public Key Certificates Generated?

Public key certificates are generated after requests have been reviewed and approved by the certificate authorities. There may be a specific issuer process, depending on the certificate authority that an individual or organization is requesting the certificate from. 

Issuer Process

Typically, the issuer process involves multiple layers to ensure the validity of the request and the authenticity of the public key certificate. Most individuals and organizations requesting a public key certificate should be prepared to provide documents that verify their identity. 

SSL and Public Key Certificates

Public key certificates are integral to the protocols of transport layer security (TLS) and secure sockets layer, or SSL. There are multiple types of public key certificates within TLS and SSL, such as: 

  • Domain Validation Certificates — These are the easiest, quickest, and most affordable public key certificates to obtain. When processing a DV certificate, the certificate authorities can confirm the authenticity of a domain name within minutes and subsequently issue the certificate. 
  • Individual Validation Certificates — Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of cybersecurity risks, which has resulted in an uptick in demand for individual validation, or IV certificates. IV certificates require the individual to prove their identity to the certificate authorities, and then they can use this public key certificate to send encrypted and secure e-mail messages. 
  • Organization Validation Certificates — Companies or organizations prioritizing quality assurance for their consumers are likely to request an organization validation (OV) certificate. Essentially, an OV certificate is an accreditation process that verifies the identity and validity of the business that is requesting the certificate. Companies and organizations can use these certificates to help build trust with their consumers. 

While these are the three most common SSL public key certificates, there are additional certificates that are available for those with specific needs. Keep in mind, however, that these certificates may require extra steps during the application process and may only be available for specific circumstances. Some additional public key certificates that are available include: 

  • Extended Validation Certificates — Extended validation, or EV certificates, are a specialized option available to individuals or entities who want to go the extra mile to increase their security and build trust online. EV certificates are considered to be some of the most trusted public key certificates, largely because issuers require applicants to go through additional steps to obtain one. To receive an EV certificate, the individual or entity requesting it must prove their identity as well as complete an independent audit that authenticates their identity. 
  • E-mail Certificates — Known in the industry as Secure/Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions, e-mail certificates were developed for those who often need to send encrypted e-mails. Most often, e-mail certificates are obtained by high-level organizations with access to their own certificate authorities. These are considered to be a specialized type of public key certificate and are typically not obtained by average individuals who want to send secure e-mails. 
  • Code-Signing Certificates — Code-signing certificates are a niche type of public key certificate used in the software development sector. These certificates, once obtained through an authority, can be used to digitally sign software that has been created for a specific device. Software designers and developers often look for code-signing certificates to confirm who created the code itself and verify that the code can be trusted. 

Take the Next Step with Lindenwood Online!

The information technology and cybersecurity programs at Lindenwood Online provide a future-forward insight into what is to come in these dynamic fields. Whether you are pursuing a bachelor's in cybersecurity or a master's degree in information technology management, you will find the hands-on, skills-based training you need to thrive in this increasingly complex and layered industry. 

Request more information today about the Lindenwood Online information technology programs. 

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