Selling and buying products online has become a regular activity for many consumers and businesses alike. In the early days of the Internet, you had to simply trust that what an online retailer said on their website was the truth. Doing Internet business was remarkably different from meeting someone face-to-face in an office to shake hands, sign papers, and exchange money. Because of the anonymity afforded by online merchandising, it didn’t take long for some unscrupulous website owners to discover the ease of deception afforded by the Internet, and take advantage of unsuspecting customers who had no way of verifying that they were legitimate.
A digital or SSL certificate is a business credential used by online companies to identify machines and people. It is similar to a driver’s license, because it is issued by a reputable third party, termed a certificate authority. A digital certificate can be used to encrypt and sign digital content, because it consists of cryptographic information. By encrypting digitally, the contents of an attachment or message cannot be altered or tampered with while they are being delivered. Digital encryption can be compared to the centuries-old practice of sealing letters with a wax seal on the envelope.
The simplest way to get a digital certificate is to buy one online with a credit card. Depending on what kind of certificate you want, you might be required to fax documents proving your identity―a process known as ‘vetting’―before you are issued a certificate. There are various types of digital certificates, with the most widely used ones being server certificates and client certificates. The certificate you choose to purchase depends on what type of information you want to identify. Server certificates are usually used to encrypt secure online transactions, such as purchases made with credit cards. Server digital certificates can cost anywhere from $100 to more than $1,000, depending on the features you want. Usually, the more expensive the certificate, the more rigorous the identification process will be.
Personal digital certificates for personal use usually cost less than $20, and personal certificates intended for commercial use cost $5-90 depending on how many you purchase.
After loading the certificate onto your computer, the functions built into the application it applies to will use the certificate. For example, there is a button within Microsoft Outlook that allows you to digitally sign e-mails, and another button that allows you to digitally encrypt them. Certificates can also be used to authenticate a person who is seeking to access sensitive information while at a remote location. Many companies use these types of certificates to establish that the person signing into company server is an authentic user of the company resources.
Until recent years, online companies had to build and maintain their own certificate authorities before they could issue digital certificates. These requirements made it expensive and time-consuming to procure certificates, so many organizations simply went without. Small and medium-sized businesses, in particular, did not have enough IT staff to handle the security functions necessary to establish and maintain a digital certificate authority. But now, the Software as a Service model (SaaS) has been designed to allow people to create ‘on-demand’ certificate authorities that are accessible via the Internet. With this model, the infrastructure costs for designing and maintaining the certificates are spread among various organizations so companies can begin with a very small up-front investment and then expand as the business expands.
With the global marketplace ever expanding, and the ability to conduct business remotely more accessible than ever before, the risk of doing business with someone you don’t know has increased exponentially. Digital certificates were designed to address the problems raised by this risk. If you conduct business transactions or exchange sensitive information with customers online through the Internet, then digital certificates are vital.