Understanding Website Certificates
What are website certificates?
If an organization wants to have a secure website that uses encryption, it needs to obtain a site, or host, certificate. There are two elements that indicate that a site uses encryption (see Protecting Your Privacy for more information):
- A closed padlock, which, depending on your browser, may be located in the status bar at the bottom of your browser window or at the top of the browser window between the address and search fields
- A Uniform Resource Locator (URL) that begins with "https:" rather than "http:"
By making sure a website encrypts your information and has a valid certificate, you can help protect yourself against attackers who create malicious sites to gather your information. You want to make sure you know where your information is going before you submit anything (see Avoiding Social Engineering and Phishing Attacks for more information).
If a website has a valid certificate, it means that a certificate authority has taken steps to verify that the web address actually belongs to that organization. When you type a URL or follow a link to a secure website, your browser will check the certificate for the following characteristics:
- The website address matches the address on the certificate.
- The certificate is signed by a certificate authority that the browser recognizes as a "trusted" authority.
Can you trust a certificate?
The level of trust you put in a certificate is connected to how much you trust the organization and the certificate authority. If the web address matches the address on the certificate, the certificate is signed by a trusted certificate authority, and the date is valid, you can be more confident that the site you want to visit is actually the site that you are visiting. However, unless you personally verify that certificate's unique fingerprint by calling the organization directly, there is no way to be absolutely sure.
When you trust a certificate, you are essentially trusting the certificate authority to verify the organization's identity for you. However, it is important to realize that certificate authorities vary in how strict they are about validating all of the information in the requests and about making sure that their data is secure. By default, your browser contains a list of more than 100 trusted certificate authorities. That means that, by extension, you are trusting all of those certificate authorities to properly verify and validate the information. Before submitting any personal information, you may want to look at the certificate.
How do you check a certificate?
There are two ways to verify a web site's certificate in Internet Explorer or Firefox. One option is to click on the padlock icon. However, your browser settings may not be configured to display the status bar that contains the icon. Also, attackers may be able to create malicious websites that fake a padlock icon and display a false dialog window if you click that icon. A more secure way to find information about the certificate is to look for the certificate feature in the menu options. This information may be under the file properties or the security option within the page information. You will get a dialog box with information about the certificate, including:
- Who issued the certificate — You should make sure that the issuer is a legitimate, trusted certificate authority (you may see names like VeriSign or Entrust). Some organizations also have their own certificate authorities that they use to issue certificates to internal sites such as intranets.
- Who the certificate is issued to — The certificate should be issued to the organization who owns the web site. Do not trust the certificate if the name on the certificate does not match the name of the organization or person you expect.
- Expiration date — Most certificates are issued for one or two years. One exception is the certificate for the certificate authority itself, which, because of the amount of involvement necessary to distribute the information to all of the organizations who hold its certificates, may be ten years. Be wary of organizations with certificates that are valid for longer than two years or with certificates that have expired.