Digital certificates are essential for the security of information systems and digital trust. They are issued for a limited period by a Certification Authority, and their use is multiplying within organizations. It is therefore essential to manage their end-to-end lifecycle to avoid service interruptions and security breaches. This is the very reason for the emergence of digital certificate cycle management tools in recent years: they ensure that certificates are issued, revoked, renewed or replaced in a timely manner.
What is digital certificate lifecycle management
Digital certificates are used to secure transactions, data exchanges and access to online resources, as well as to control the identity of people, computers and other equipment when they connect to a network or an application. Certificate Lifecycle Management (CLM) involves managing digital certificates from their creation to their expiration or revocation, to secure processes and avoid any risk of service interruption.
It is essential for maintaining the security, availability and reliability of online services and systems, and for guaranteeing the authenticity, integrity and confidentiality of exchanged data. It ensures that certificates are used appropriately, and that they are renewed or revoked appropriately.
What are the stages in the digital certificate life cycle?
A digital certificate is an electronic file that cryptographically binds the public key of an entity (e.g. a website or mail server) to verifiable identification information, such as an organization’s official documents. The life cycle of a digital certificate includes the following stages:
- Certificate creation: this is the initial stage during which a Certification Authority (CA) issues a digital certificate in the appropriate format for the needs of the requesting organization, attests to the entity’s identity and digitally signs the certificate. The creation of the certificate is accompanied by the generation of a public key and a private key.
- Certificate installation: this stage involves installing digital certificates on the systems and applications that need them. This task can be performed manually or automatically.
- Certificate monitoring: throughout the certificate’s validity period, you need to monitor its status and reliability. This includes checking for potential problems such as imminent expiration or risks of compromise.
- Certificate renewal: Certificates have a limited validity period. As such, they must be renewed before they expire to avoid service interruptions. Renewal generally involves revalidation of the entity’s identity.
- Certificate revocation: if a certificate is compromised or no longer trusted for any reason, it can be revoked by the certification authority. Revoked certificates are added to certificate revocation lists (CRLs) or made available via Online Certificate Status Protocol (OCSP) services to inform organizations that they can no longer be trusted.
- Certificate replacement: in some cases, certificates need to be replaced before they expire, due to problems such as loss of private keys or changes in the entity’s identity or domain name.
- Certificate decommissioning: when a certificate is no longer needed, it must be properly decommissioned (removed from servers and devices, checked to ensure it is no longer being used to secure communications, etc.).
- Certificate lifecycle and compliance: records must be kept of all certificates issued, renewed, revoked and decommissioned for security and compliance auditing purposes.
What are the different uses of digital certificates?
Digital certificates are used in a wide range of IT security applications. Here are just a few examples:
Web server authentication (SSL/TLS certificates)
SSL/TLS certificates enable secure connections between web browsers and servers. They guarantee that data exchanged between the user and the server is encrypted, thus protecting data confidentiality.
Digital certificates are used to authenticate users (humans, applications, connected objects, etc.) when connecting to a network or application. This strengthens security by ensuring that only authorized users can access resources.
They can be combined with other authentication methods, such as passwords, to implement two-factor authentication, further securing connections to applications and websites.
They are also used in Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to authenticate users and devices connecting to a corporate network remotely, thus reinforcing the security of communications.
Digital certificates can be used to encrypt data to guarantee the confidentiality and security of information exchanged over computer networks, particularly the Internet.
Electronic signature of documents
They are used to create secure electronic signatures, time-stamp and guarantee the integrity and authenticity of digital documents (quotes, contracts, administrative acts, etc.).
Protecting connected objects (IoT)
Digital certificates can be used to secure communications between connected objects (IoT), control their identity and ensure the confidentiality of exchanged data.
Securing financial transactions
They are a key element of security and confidence in online financial transactions, as they authenticate parties, encrypt sensitive data, prevent fraud and guarantee the integrity and security of financial operations carried out over the Internet.
Digital certificates also serve the needs of electronic archiving. They contribute to the long-term preservation of the authenticity, integrity and security of archived digital documents.
Access control to buildings and physical systems
As a final example, digital certificates can be integrated into access cards and access control devices to ensure that only authorized people can access certain buildings or secure areas.
The difficulties of managing digital certificates
In a context where the number of digital certificates is increasing rapidly, managing their lifecycle generates a number of difficulties:
- Limited validity of digital certificates
- Manage certificates with different expiration dates
- Loss or compromise of private keys leading to security breaches
- Diversity of digital certificate formats and suppliers
- Track the location, use and suppliers of certificates
- Renew certificates to avoid service interruptions
- Management of revocations in the event of loss, theft or compromise
- Audit and compliance with certificate management policies and security standards
- Costs associated with certificate monitoring, management, modifications and updates
- Training in security and certificate management best practices
The emergence of certificate lifecycle management tools
In a white paper entitled “The rapid growth of SSL encryption“, Fortinet points out that the average organization has over 23,000 digital certificates, and that 54% of IT managers do not know where these keys are stored. Digital certificates are essential for improving the security of information systems, and are at the heart of digital trust.
This is one of the reasons why certificate lifecycle management tools, such as BerryCert, have emerged in recent years. Analyst firm Gartner recommends this type of solution for more than 100 certificates deployed.
These CLM tools automate a number of tasks:
- Inventory of deployed certificates (location, owner, expiry date, etc.)
- Automatic renewal of expiring certificates
- Revocation of compromised or unauthorized certificates
- Real-time monitoring of certificate status and condition
- Verification that issued certificates comply with the organization’s security policies, such as minimum key length requirements
- Integration with certification authorities, facilitating certificate issuance and tracking
- Automate certificate request, issue, renewal and revocation processes
- Notifications of expiring certificates and potential vulnerabilities
- Implement more frequent certificate renewal policies to improve security
- Generate detailed reports on certificate status (impending expiry, revoked certificates, etc.)
They make certificate management more secure and reduce the associated costs.