A Complete Guide On PKI Certificates (With Types And 5 FAQs)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 8 August 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Public key infrastructure (PKI) is a system that enables users to encrypt and sign data on digital platforms. The ability to issue PKI or public key infrastructure certificates, which enable users to authenticate their identity and specific devices, is a crucial aspect of PKI that can be of great value to users. If you work in a technical role or frequently use computers, it may be beneficial to learn about these certificates and use them to enhance the security of organisational data.

In this article, we define a PKI certificate, discuss the major types, enlist steps to get one and answer some frequently asked questions about the usage and benefits of these certificates.

What Is A PKI Certificate?

A PKI certificate is a digitally signed document analogous to a physical identification card or passport in the physical world. This certificate is a trustable digital identity. It is used to identify users, servers or objects communicating over untrusted networks, to sign code or documents and to encrypt or decrypt data or communication. This certificate is sometimes also called a digital certificate.

Public-key cryptography employs both private and public keys, with the certificate used to prove ownership of the public key by keeping it with the owner's information and administrative data. The issuing certificate authority (CA) signs the certificate and attaches the signature to the certificate. X.509 is the standard for the most popular formats for digital certificates. The primary objective of these certificates is to establish a secure digital environment where each certificate acts as a gatekeeper for the secure exchange of digital information.

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Types Of PKI Certificates

Following are some types of these certificates:

Personal authentication certificates

The personal authentication certificate facilitates identity verification and the addition of digital signatures to online communications. Signing emails allows all users to exchange information online, which is one of the most dominant use cases for a personal authentication certificate. Employing a personal authentication certificate can increase the security of these conversations by adding hashing capabilities and digital signatures. Many businesses also utilise personal authentication certificates to verify clients' data digitally.

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Document signing certificates

Certificates for document signing enable users to safeguard the files and documents they share on digital channels, such as the internet and email. These certificates function by utilising a rigorous procedure to confirm the signer's identification and ensure that their organisation has authorised them to act as a representative. They utilise hashing to protect the information contained in a document or file by encrypting it with a passkey that users require entering to access the document.

When someone tries to alter or forge a signature, the hash values can also change, alerting the document's owner that their security may be at risk.

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Code signing certificates

The primary use of code signing certificates is to protect anything that users can download, such as executable files or software. Because of this ability, these certificates are often helpful to businesses, including publishing and software development, that utilise software to receive and transmit enormous quantities of data. Organisational validation and individual validation are two types of code signing certificates.

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Secure socket layer and transport layer security (SSL/TLS) certificates

SSL/TLS certificates generally prioritise the security of any data that users choose to communicate over a web server. Webmasters purchase SSL/TLS certificates for their websites. They install these certificates directly on the server where they host their website. Depending on the type of SSL/TLS certificate a user selects, SSL/TLS certificates can also perform a variety of functions. Here are some of the key roles of an SSL/TLS certificate:

  • Domain validation

  • Organisation validation

  • Extended validation

  • Securing single domains

  • Securing single-level sub-domains

  • Securing multi domains

  • Securing multiple websites and sub-domains

How To Use The Personal Key Infrastructure Certificate?

Consider the following steps to get this certificate:

1. Obtain a certificate online

Typically, requesting the certificate online is the initial step in obtaining one. While the specific method for getting a personal key infrastructure certificate can vary based on the source from which you wish to obtain it, the prerequisites for most certificates are similar. Read the rules for how to use this certificate and confirm that you accept the issuing organisation's terms and conditions. Often, there is also a form to fill out and submit, which generates a control number to assist users with installing the public key infrastructure certificate on their machines.

2. Install the certificate

Once you get approval for the certificate, the issuing authority often gives it to you through email. Save it on your computer to prepare for installation. Typically, installing this certificate requires using the control number on the application form to access the certificate and exporting it as a file onto your computer. Once you download the software to your computer, you can read the general options and approve the installation.

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3. Adjust the security settings

The last step in obtaining a personal key infrastructure certificate and preparing it for usage is selecting the desired security parameters. This may entail selecting a security level for the certificate, which users typically set to high to preserve cybersecurity. Then, you can generate a unique password for the certificate that users who possess it can use to gain access. For instance, if you wish to see your files from a different device and require access to information protected by the certificate, you can input the password when requested.

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5 FAQs About PKI

Here are five frequently asked questions about personal key infrastructure and its application:

1. What types of businesses can benefit from the personal key infrastructure certificate?

Several types of professionals can benefit from employing the certificate. Information technology is one of the most popular kinds of businesses to employ personal key infrastructure certificates, as cybersecurity professionals can use them to increase customer security. In addition, software developers can utilise these certificates to verify that the systems and applications they develop remain secure for users once they release them. Small businesses can also benefit from using these certificates, as many have their e-commerce or membership portals that these certificates can help keep secure.

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2. Is a personal key infrastructure certificate the same as an SSL certificate?

Website owners use SSL certificates to safeguard the data transfer between their visitors' browsers and their servers. It uses the public key and private key of PKI technology to facilitate data encryption. PKI is also responsible for associating keys with user identities via a certificate authority.

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3. What are common problems that PKI solves?

Authenticating and protecting a diverse range of internet of things (IoT) devices is one of the most important uses for PKI. These use cases span industries, as any connected gadget, require to be secure to protect them from any malicious cyber attacks. For example, at a simple retail store, a data breach may happen if hackers access the retailer's point of sale system by impersonating an unverified heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) unit on the network. Some of the most compelling PKI use cases today include the Internet of Things.

Automobile manufacturers and medical device makers are two common types of businesses that are implementing PKI for IoT devices. There are many other use cases for PKI. Examples of common PKI applications include:

  • Digital signatures

  • Email and file encryption

  • Restricted access to enterprise virtual private networks

  • Password-less wi-fi access established on device ownership

  • SSL/TLS certificates to secure web browsing and communications between user and server

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4. How do digital signing and e­mail encrypting differ?

Digitally signing an email message entails adding a digital certificate to it so that the recipient is confident that the sender of the information is legitimate and that the information is untampered. Though adding a digital signature to a message may not always guarantee protection from third-party monitoring. Encrypting a message ensures that only the intended recipient may view the information being transmitted via an unsecured network. This is a precaution against the monitoring of confidential data. To send a signed message or encrypt or decrypt a message, the user requires a digital certificate.

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5. How does a digital signature differ from a digital signature certificate (DSC)?

Digital signatures provide consumers with authenticity verification, privacy and security during online transactions and information exchange. Digital signatures help with secure messaging, online banking apps, secure online workflow tools and supply chain management, among many other applications. A digital signature certificate includes the record of the certificate's holder and information about the digital certificate. These are digital documents that validate the existence of a digital authentication connected with a particular individual or business. A digital certificate prevents fraudulent entities from endangering the identification and security of a person or organisation.

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