Understanding SSL will play a major role in helping you make your website more secure, as it is one of the most important digital risk protection methods. I can assure you that you have interacted with SSL in many instances before. If you have made an online transaction or entered personal information anywhere on the internet before, an SSL security protocol kept your information safe. To make this possible, websites use SSL certificates. So, what is an SSL certificate?

What Is an SSL Certificate?

SSL stands for secure sockets layer and helps create an encrypted link or connection for a website. SSL certificates are often the difference between an HTTP and an HTTPS web address, with the HTTPS being more secure. Another sign that a web server has an SSL certificate is when there is a padlock icon at the start of the browser box on top of your screen (just right before the website link on the address bar).

But why the term “certificate” after the SSL?

To get your website an SSL, you need to place a certificate signing request (CSR) to help you create a private and public key, which works in tandem to keep your website safe.

How SSL Certificates Work

An SSL certificate is not only important to a user browsing your site but to web browsers that see the certificate as an indication that your site is safe. If you have ever visited a site and gotten a warning that it is not safe, it might be because the site has no SSL certificate.

An SSL secures all the connections between the browser and the server. All the information is kept safe from an intruder or hacker trying to alter any information on the website. This security is provided by combining private and public keys. The public key is available for encryption by anyone. On the flip side, the private key is kept by the certificate authority and is the only key that can decrypt the encrypted connection. A private key can be used for both encryption and decryption.

How to Obtain SSL Certificates

As mentioned above, you need to place a CSR to get an SSL certificate. The request is placed to a certificate authority (also known as a certification authority), who will issue you with the SSL certificate. You can get a free SSL certificate or one that is priced at a given value depending on the level of security it offers.

You can get the certificate using the following steps:

  1. Ensure you have the correct website information, which is your WHOIS record as regulated by ICANN.
  2. Choose the type of SSL certificate you want (more on types of SSL certificates later).
  3. Generate your CSR (certificate signing request).
  4. Submit the CSR to a certificate authority.
  5. Await validation from your certificate authority (the validation process might take a while).
  6. Install the SSL certificate.

Once you get your SSL certificate, it will contain the following information;

  • Your domain name
  • The certificate authority that issued the digital certificate
  • The issue date
  • Certificate authority’s digital signature
  • The person or organisation the certificate was issued to
  • Expiration date
  • Associated subdomains (if you are going for multi-domain SSL certificates)
  • The public key (the private key is kept secret)

When getting an SSL certificate, there are different types you can choose from.

What Are the Different Types of SSL Certificates

When getting an SSL, the certificate you choose will be divided into three different sections;

  1. Root certificate- belongs to and is closely guarded by the issuing authority.
  2. Intermediate certificate- the link between the root and server certificate.
  3. Server certificate- issued to a specific domain.

Here are the different types of certificates you can choose depending on your domain needs.

  • Single domain SSL certificate- applies to only one domain and all the pages in the domain.
  • Multi-domain SSL certificates- Multiple domains can be linked to a single certificate.
  • Wildcard SSL certificates- Apply to a single domain and its subdomains.

Before getting these certificates, a domain has to be validated through a vetting process that does a background check on the website. Here are the different validation levels (note that the encryption and security levels are similar for these certificates, and what varies is the vetting process for the different domains).

SSL Validation Levels

1) Extended Validation SSL Certificates

Also known as EV SSL certificate, extended validation is applied to verify ownership from a legal perspective. This validation ensures the physical and operational presence of an entity. The extended validation does a thorough background check before any SSL protocol is issued to a domain.

The EV SSL certificate is usually the most expensive to attain. Still, if you have done your security assessment, you won’t have to worry about passing the validation stage.

2) Domain Validated Certificates

Also known as DV certificates, domain-validated certificates specifically check an applicant’s right to use a specific domain name. While a site may be well encrypted, you can never be sure who is receiving your confidential information on the other end, and DV validation ensures your info is in safe hands.

3) Organisation Validated Certificates

Also known as OV SSL certificates, organisation-validated certificates apply to organisations. This certificate is issued after a company’s information is verified and extensively researched.

Frequently Asked Questions About SSL Certificates

a) What is the purpose of an SSL certificate?

An SSL certificate ensures confidential information is safe from hackers and anyone with malicious intent on the internet. The certificate ensures all the publicly encrypted data can only be decrypted by a private key, which is kept secretively.

SSL certificates offer protection to data, including;

  • Medical records
  • Passwords
  • Personal addresses
  • Credit card numbers
  • Transaction codes, etc.

b) What is an SSL certificate, and how does it work?

An SSL certificate is a certificate issued to a website to show that all the information is safe from interference by hackers. The certification further verifies the validity of the website and the information therein.

An SSL certificate works by combining the private and private keys when handling data, with the private key being the only way to decrypt data, and is kept secretively by the certificate authority.

c) Is it necessary to have an SSL certificate?

There are two main reasons why it is important to have an SSL certificate. First, the certificate ensures all the information is safe and can only be decrypted using a private key that is not publicly accessible. Secondly, an SSL certificate ensures your site is trustworthy, and users can be confident that their information is safe.

d) How do you get an SSL certificate?

SSL certificates are issued by a certificate authority that verifies the validity of a domain or an organisation and issues the appropriate certification. Once you generate a certificate signing request, you can issue it to a certificate authority, who will validate the information and issue you with an SSL certificate.

Final Thoughts

All websites need an SSL certificate (also sometimes referred to as transport layer security) for many reasons, including building trust with users. Getting your website validated also means you are doing a great job with it since the certificate authorities do extensive background checks and should be part of your security improvement plan.

Featured Image by Freepik.

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