What is a digital certificate?
The future of work will see our businesses increasingly reliant on technology to deliver automation, flexible working options, and security.
Digital certificates will have a vital part to play in delivering all these processes and their associated benefits, but what are they?
What is a digital certificate and how do they work?
Digital certificates share public keys that encrypt and authenticate the validity and integrity of digital assets.
A digital certificate holds:
- Information about the public key being certified.
- Identifiers relating to the owner of the public key.
- Metadata that verifies its authenticity as a digital certificate.
- A digital signature of the public key, issued by the certificate authority (CA) that issued the digital certificate.
Digital certificates generally tell either software or a human end-user that a digital asset is legitimate and secure. This information can then facilitate the sharing of data and act as a trigger in automated processes, with integrated apps verifying the security and integrity of an asset thanks to the digital certificate.
A simple example of a digital certificate that helps us in an everyday context is a TLS (previously and still sometimes known as SSL, although the protocol has changed) certificate on a website. They tell you that the website is secure, that its security credentials are sound, and that you can safely share your details through forms or make a purchase.
What are the benefits of having a digital certificate?
Depending on the context in which you are using them, digital certificates can provide a wealth of benefits.
- Authenticating the identity of a document or another digital asset. If you know something is what it says it is, you can be satisfied you can use it safely and submit and process any data via the platform in question.
- Maintaining confidentiality. You can use a digital certificate to encrypt data and ensure only the intended recipient or app can read it. This is vital if you are collaborating on projects or with clients.
- Verifying data integrity. Digital certificates confirm that a document or another asset, such as data, has not been tampered with after being sent.
- Confirmation of sending and receiving. A digital certificate creates an audit trail, meaning a party cannot deny sending, or receiving, a message, transaction, or asset. As such, digital certificates can be hugely valuable in identifying process issues and things like legal proceedings.
- Controlling access to digital assets. Digital certificates can help maintain data access and heighten your data security.
What are the different types of digital certificates?
There is a vast range of types of digital certificates in use in tech and business automation around the world.
Some of the most common include:
- TLS server certificates – the things that tell you a website is secure.
- TLS client certificates – these are not as common as server certificates but might be used to authenticate someone connecting to a server. For example, if your remote workers can only access specific systems via your internal VPN, this would use a TLS client certificate.
- Email certificates – think about the warnings you get when you receive an email from an external source; this is your email certificate warning you to be wary of the source.
- Qualified certificates are often used in processes involving electronic signatures and are particularly prevalent in Europe.
Is a digital certificate the same as a digital signature?
No, although it is common to find the terms used interchangeably.
A digital signature is a mathematical algorithm that can help verify assets. A digital certificate holds additional metadata to help confirm an asset's authenticity, including the digital signature itself.
Digital signatures can exist without a digital certificate. However, most tech that relies on digital signatures will also use a certificate. In contrast, a digital certificate will always carry a digital signature.
How will digital certificates revolutionize the future of work?
The truth is that digital certificates are already revolutionizing the future of work!
Think about the processes that you already automate in your business. Anything involving two or more integrated apps talking to each other and generating a data output or triggering another step in the process relies on digital certificates to some extent. Digital certificates can play a role in various processes, from nurturing leads to automating the generation and execution of your contracts and other business documents.
Digital certificates work for processes with human involvement, too. So, for example, you can use digital certificates to manage processes undertaken by remote workers or control access to systems like in our earlier example. Relying on tech in this way means they can get on with their job and deliver their agreed actions.
Using digital certificates to your advantage
We do not need to tell you to go out and make sure that you are using digital certificates in your business.
After all, if you have any automated processes, whether internally, for remote workers, or your customers, digital certificates will play a role in driving them. However, what you can do is lookout for apps that use the best tech and provide the broadest set of integrations to help you make the most of the possibilities that digital certificates offer.