What is a digital certificate?

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Digital Certificates are items which are used to secure your identity on the web, similar to a driver license or passport. You can present digital certificates electronically to prove your identity and your right to access information online. Digital certificates bind your identity to a pair of electronic keys which can be used to encrypt digital information. This helps to validate your claim to an ID, and helps prevent people from using fake keys to impersonate you. Digital certificates are issued by a Certification Authority and are then signed with the Certification Authority’s private key as well.

A digital certificate contains a wealth of information, such as the owner’s public key, the owner’s name, the expiration date of the public key, the name of the office which issued the certificate, the digital certificate’s serial number, and of course, the signature of the Certification Authority.

Digital Certificates are used for a wide variety of electronic transactions, which include email, shopping on the web, and electronic funds transfers, such as from PayPal, or Google Checkout. Customers who shop online frequently access merchant sites who employ digital certificates to certify that the information they provide on the website is valid, and the information that the customer gives them is secured and protected through SSL. The digital certificate is an important part of establishing a secure channel for communicating sensitive information back and forth. The certificate acts as a signature which validates both parties in the electronic transfer.

Digital certificates, once issued, usually remain valid for a period of time, up to one year. These certificates must then be re-issued. There are also many threats involved with digital certificates, such as the hi-jacking of them to serve on different websites. Many websites which have their digital certificate hi-jacked are unaware until their certificate is disabled. If its been discovered that a digital certificate has been hi-jacked, the certificate may be revoked, rendering it invalid. The original owner of the certificate will then have to apply to the Certification Authority for a new certificate in order to continue offering secure transactions on its website. Certificates may also be revoked for other reasons, including information being inaccurate, or name and business changes. These revocations are rare, but they do happen, so it’s essential that certificates be checked regularly for their validity. Each time your browser attempts to access a secure website, it checks the digital certificate to make sure it is valid.

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