When the average Internet user visits a website, there’s a lot of information being exchanged between the computer or device and the web host. These transactions can unfortunately be breached—and quite easily—and thus hacking and identify theft are always major issues to contend with online for any frequent net user or businessperson. Knowing which sites to trust and letting users know that you can be trusted may all boil down to an SSL Certificate.
Although you may have seen sites displaying an SSL Certificate, and although you may have a general idea that it is security-based, few people actually realize what’s at the root of this feature. SSL stands for Secure Sockets Layer, and like its predecessor, Transport Layer Security (TLS), an SSL is a cryptographic protocol providing tight security during data exchanges.
Using symmetric encrypting for confidentiality and asymmetric cryptography for the key exchange, an SSL essentially encrypts information by scrambling various segments of a network connection at two key points – the Transport layer and the Application layer. The method is so effective that email, faxing, IMs, VoIP and many other communications online are protected by SSL protocols.
Of course, this is the security side of the equation; i.e. how SSL actually works. The certificate is another story entirely, and I will explain a little bit about it below.
Luckily, the actual certificate here is much easier to explain than how the SSL security protocol actually functions. However, an SSL Certificate isn’t exactly how it sounds. In other words, it’s not a piece of paper displayed like someone’s college degree. Rather it is a means by which a web server can actually prove its identity to web browsers. Once proven, the transaction can take place and each end can participate in communications privately by way of the HTTPS protocol.
These certificates are not handed over lightly. There are a few places out there acting as Certificate Authorities (CA), and these authorities must authenticate a site or a server and subsequently sign a digital certificate that is stored, much like a cookie, alerting all protocols that the incoming connection is trusted.
Thawte and GoDaddy are two big CAs, but there are plenty others out there. With so much information being handed out on a daily basis, such as credit card information, IPs, banking info, and other vital information, most servers need an SSL Certificate in this day and age to ensure that a browser will always accept its incoming connection.
Although this might not be the case with individual websites (at least on a smaller scale), it most certainly is the case with larger web hosts. They need to be certified by a CA before they’re trusted.
To break it all down into understandable English, an SSL Certificate is nothing more than a small data file containing pertinent information about its owner that will be picked up and quickly read by a host connection as it receives the request for connection. It makes financial transactions and other data exchanges secure. Without a certificate, the site or server may not be trusted at all.