Everything You Need to Know About SSL Certificates and Why You Need One
If you’ve looked into website security, you may have come across the term “SSL certificate.” This isn’t any type of certification you have to get, nor is it an actual paper certificate you can frame and hang in the office. Instead, it’s a particular type of website security that encrypts data so it can safely be passed between the user’s computer and the website’s server.
While it’s vital if you’re running an eCommerce website or are asking users for payment information, it’s paramount to have this extra security on your website regardless of what data you’re collecting. Let’s look at what SSL certificates are, what they do, and how you can get one for your website.
What is a SSL certificate?
SSL stands for Secure Sockets Layer. This website security protocol creates an encryption key between the user’s browser and the server hosting your website. When the user enters information into a form on your website, SSL takes that information and encrypts it before sending it across the internet to the server. Once encrypted, the information transforms into random letters, numbers, and other characters. If a hacker or any type of malware were to intercept this information, all they would have is gibberish unless they knew the correct encryption key.
Once the information arrives at the server and is safe behind your website’s firewalls and other security measures, it can be decrypted. SSL protocols, or their successors, have been used for more than 25 years to protect data. Technically, SSL has been replaced by TLS or Transport Layer Security. However, the term SSL has been around for so long that it’s now more of a shorthand for any method to encrypt data between the user and the server. While most people think of SSL as being associated with websites, it’s used by many different applications that transmit information across the internet, such as email clients and servers.
How Do You Know if a Website is Using SSL?
To tell if a website uses SSL encryption, you need to look for two things. The first is the website address. If you asked someone what a website URL begins with, they would naturally say HTTP. However, most websites today start with HTTPS. The “s” indicates that the website is secure and indicates that SSL protocols are active.
The second way to tell if a website is using SSL is to look to your browser’s immediate left of the website address. If it’s secure, you’ll see a small lock icon there. If you don’t see this lock, be hesitant to submit any sensitive information to the website.
How Do SSL Certificates Work?
The process of encrypting data starts before the user enters any information. It begins when they navigate the website, either by clicking a link or entering the URL directly. Then the web browser reaches out to the server it sends a request for identification. The server sends the browser its SSL certificate, which it then authenticates. Once it has authenticated the server’s identity and determined that it is trustworthy, it tells the server to begin an encrypted session. The server does, creating a secured channel between the two that will protect any data sent back and forth.
Information is encrypted and decrypted using a set of three keys: the public key, the private key, and the session key. The browser obtains a copy of the server’s public key, which it uses to encrypt data during the initial contact. That data cannot be decrypted with the public key, however. To decrypt this information, a private key is needed. The server never sends this key to anyone. Once this initial contact is made and the server’s identity confirmed, an encrypted session key is shared. This key is used from then on because it takes less processing power to encrypt and decrypt. Because it’s sent securely using the public/private key encryption system, it cannot be used even if it’s intercepted.
This process also called an SSL handshake, sounds like a long process. However, happens to fast so fast that users don’t realize it. There’s nothing the user has to do to start the process, nor are they involved, and it’s all done automatically.
What’s on the SSL Certificate?
An SSL certificate contains of several different elements:
- The website the certificate was issued to and any subdomains associated with it.
- The organization, device, or even person the certificate was issued to.
- The authority that issued the certificate.
- A digital signature.
- The date the certificate was issued and the date it expires.
- A public key and a private key. The public key can be viewed by clicking on the small lock icon when a website has an SSL certificate, and the private key cannot be viewed.
These elements are found on the basic SSL certificate, but other certificates are available that provide more information. For example, an Extended Validation SSL certificate displays the business’s name and country of operation in the browser’s address bar. This helps make it easier to spot spam websites that look incredibly authentic. ECommerce sites often use these certificates to assure visitors that they’re sending payment information to the correct company.
Another option is the Unified Communications or Multi-Domain SSL certificate. This certificate is good for multiple domains owned by the same company. Companies with multiple websites on different domains may find that having a unified SSL makes managing this aspect of their online security easier.
Who Issues SSL Certificates?
SSL certificates are issued by companies known as Certificate Authorities. These organizations are experts at verifying identities and establishing the website’s legitimacy by requesting SSL certification. Your website domain name registrar may issue SSLs, but you can also request an SSL from companies such as IdenTrust, DigiCert, and Sectigo. Each browser has a list of trusted organizations. When the browser receives a copy of the server’s SSL certification during the handshake process, it looks to see which company authorized it. There’s no issue if that company is on the list of trusted issuers. If it’s not, the user may receive an alert letting them know the certificate’s issuer may not be trustworthy.
Renewing Your SSL
An SSL certificate does have an expiration date that is typically 27 months or less from the date of issue. This is because server information needs to be regularly checked to ensure that it’s still accurate and take any updates or changes into account. Some companies have even supported the idea of one-year certificates, though this has not yet gone into effect.
When your certificate does expire, the website is no longer accessible as normal. Instead, users will receive a message that the site isn’t secure, and if they proceed, they’re taking a risk. They can click to continue, but many will not. As part of your regular website maintenance, you need to check that your SSL certificate has not expired and note when it does. You can renew it early, and the Certification Authority will let you know when your SSL certificate is getting close to expiring. If it does expire, you’ll have to apply for a new one.
Protect Your Customers and Your Website with an SSL Certificate
If you don’t have an SSL certificate on your website SSL certificate on your website, users will be very hesitant to share information. Your website is also likely to be tagged in browsers as an unsecured site. This is also going to make your visitors pause. You’ll likely lose potential new customers if you don’t have a secure website. Even returning customers may seek out a competitor who has SSL certification.
Without encryption, the data sent back and forth between the user and your server is left wide open for hackers to intercept. Should that occur, the damage to your company’s reputation could be devastating. Your customer base could abandon you, resulting in a significant decrease in revenue. You may lose business partnerships. Some employees may even leave because they’re uncertain how secure you’re keeping their personal information. You may also be fined if you’re in an industry with strict security regulations.
The best way to ensure your website is secure is to work with a qualified partner. A partner who thoroughly understands website design, security, and maintenance. These partners will make sure you have the right SSL certificate for your needs and regularly renew it.
State Can Be That Partner
State Creative has years of experience in creating and maintaining websites. Our team can design and build a new website for your company from the ground up to meet your needs. We can also take your current site and give it a complete upgrade. All of our sites use SSL certificates and other security measures to keep your information safe and secure. Contact State Creative today to learn more about what we can do for you.