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What Are SSL Certificates?

What Are SSL Certificates?

(SSL, information security)

No doubt you’ve heard about and even come across a SSL security certificate before, but do you know what one actually is, or what it actually does? It’s surprising that very few people have much knowledge of what SSL certificates are, outside of the fact they provide information security for online transactions.

SLL stands for “Secure Socket Layer Protocol Certificate”, and these are designed to provide a high level of information security for transactions that carry sensitive data between servers and web browsers. Originally conceived by Netscape, SSL certificates are a third party that is used to secure information and ascertain that both parties in a transaction are who they say they are. SSL certificates are trusted in much the same way as a passport or driving license issued from the relevant government body is taken for granted.

To better understand how SSL certificates work, we can imagine somebody sending a letter through the regular mail service (the old fashioned way). Because a normal letter in an envelope has no security whatsoever, it would be possible for anyone to take that letter and open it if they thought it contained something valuable. The same thing applies to emails and other unsecured online communications. When you use an SSL certificate however, it’s like sending your letter by courier, together with a squad of crack commandos guarding it.  There’s a lot less chance that anyone is going to take your letter!

SSL certificates provide an extremely high level of information security for data exchanged over the internet, and are the most trusted form of online security.

How an SSL certificate works:

Here’s how an SSL certificate works in the real world, beginning when you click that “pay now” button:

  • The browser requests a secure page, usually beginning with “https://”.
  • The server sends a public key together with its SSL certificate.
  • The browser will now verify that the SSL certificate is valid, comes from a trusted source and is connected to the website you are trying to contact.
  • Once verified, the browser uses the public key to generate a random symmetric encryption key.
  • The symmetric key is then sent to the server, together with the required URL and any other encrypted http data.
  • The server will then decrypt the symmetric key with its private key. Using the data from the decrypted symmetric key, it then decrypts the URL and any http data.
  • The http data and html document requested is then sent to the browser, again encrypted with the symmetric key
  • The browser decrypts the html and http data with the symmetric key, and finally the information can be displayed on screen.

Because of the way online business has mushroomed in recent years, SSL certificate protection is no longer simply a luxury – it is a vital information security tool for any business wishing to conduct transactions online.

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