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Blog Post Aug 09, 2023

The Crucial Role of Certificate Authorities in Building Trust in a Digital World

With over 1.2 million phishing attacks in 2022 alone, many users are increasingly becoming wary of the legitimacy of websites and email communication. 

To build digital trust, organizations enforce an encryption and verification system to shield sensitive information from potential threats. A critical component of this system is Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) certificates, which help ensure the confidentiality and integrity of data transmitted across the internet.

Read on to learn more about SSL certificates and the trusted bodies that issue them, known as certificate authorities (CAs). Learn their role in the SSL certificate ecosystem and the rigorous process involved to establish trust as a new CA.

CAs in the SSL Certificate Ecosystem

SSL certificates are digital certificates that offer a layer of security over data transmitted between a client and a server. Encrypting the data during transmission prevents malicious entities from intercepting or tampering with the data.

When a client connects to a server that uses SSL (like a web server hosting a website), the server presents its SSL certificate. The certificate contains a public key that the client uses to encrypt data sent to the server. The server then uses a private key it knows alone to decrypt the data. This way, even if a third party intercepts the transmission, without the private key, they won’t make sense of the data.

SSL certificates are typically issued by a certificate authority. Before it issues a certificate, the CA verifies the identity of the requesting party, either a company or an individual. This means when others see the SSL certificate, they can trust it represents the entity it claims to be. This helps prevent scams like phishing attacks, where the attacker impersonates another website.

A note about SSL. The SSL protocol is now deprecated because of known security vulnerabilities. The current protocol is Transport Layer Security (TLS), which is more secure. However, the term "SSL certificate" persists and is often used interchangeably with "TLS certificate."

Demystifying How CAs Work

CAs play a pivotal role in internet security by issuing and managing SSL certificates. Here are the processes involved:

  • Verification. CAs verify the identity of the requesting entity before issuing an SSL certificate. The depth of this verification process varies depending on the SSL certificate type. For example, a CA only verifies that the requester controls the domain for a domain validation (DV) certificate. However, with an organization validation (OV) or extended validation (EV) certificate, the CA also confirms the requester’s organization by checking the company’s registration documents and contacting the organization directly.
  • Issuance. Once the CA confirms the entity's identity, it issues the SSL certificate. This certificate contains the entity’s public key, which is used for encrypting data, along with other related information about the entity.
  • Revocation. A CA is responsible for revoking any certificate that becomes compromised. This happens if a private key is leaked or if a certificate was issued to an entity that should not have received it. Revoked certifications are added to a Certificate Revocation List (CRL) or, more recently, communicated through an Online Certificate Status Protocol (OCSP) responder, which browsers check to confirm if a certificate is valid.
  • Renewal. SSL certificates have a set lifespan before they expire and become invalid. CAs are responsible for issuing renewals or new certificates as necessary.

How New CAs Establish Trust

Trust is vital in cybersecurity. If a CA is untrustworthy, the certificates they issue aren’t trustworthy either. This is why it’s critical that CAs follow strict procedures to maintain trust.

Establishing trust as a new CA is a multi-faceted process and requires meeting stringent procedural, technical, and auditing standards. Here are some of the basic steps involved.

#1: Infrastructure and Security

A prospective CA must have a secure and robust infrastructure in place to ensure certificates are not being issued fraudulently. This includes digital security measures, such as secure private key storage and encryption, and physical security measures, such as access control to facilities. Plus, they must have processes for disaster recovery or incidents that can compromise security.

#2: Procedures and Policies

CAs must have comprehensive and clear procedures and policies covering each aspect of their operations. This includes how they verify requesting entity identities, how they store and manage certificates, and their processes for revoking certificates. Additionally, CAs must have a publicly accessible Certificate Practice Statement (CPS) that provides a detailed explanation of these policies.

#4: Auditing

CAs must be independently audited by a recognized third party to be trusted by operating systems and browsers. These audits are done in accordance with industry standards, like the WebTrust Principles and Criteria for Certification Authorities. The audits confirm that CAs follow policies and meet the required security standards. Regular audits, typically annually, are necessary for maintaining a trusted status.

#5: Trust Stores

For a CA’s certification to be widely trusted, it needs to be included in the “trust stores” of major software vendors like Apple, Google, and Microsoft. Every company has its own criteria and process for including CAs in its trust store. This typically involves reviewing the CA’s audit results and policies and sometimes includes direct technical and procedural checks.

Certificate Authorities: Foundational Security in the Digital Era

Securing data and communications is more crucial than ever in an increasingly vast and complex digital landscape. Certificates are the backbone of a secure digital infrastructure, protecting sensitive data from prying eyes. CAs play a foundational role by verifying, issuing, revoking, and renewing SSL certificates. Establishing and maintaining trust as a CA is not a one-time process. It requires ongoing adherence to industry standards and a commitment to security, transparency, and reliability.

To secure your online presence with SSL certificates, choosing a CA with a proven track record of trust and reliability is crucial. Sectigo is a globally recognized CA offering robust and comprehensive digital security solutions to organizations worldwide. Get in touch with our experts today to know more.