How Digital Signatures and Digital Certificates Differ

by Debra Garls

Though digital signatures and digital certificates both provide online security, they are very different in how and why they are used.

Why Do Digital Certificates and Digital Signatures Exist?

As the world moves away from paper and toward digital processes, the need for online security increased along with it. With the creation of online documents, emails, and attachments, there was also the invention of forged online identities, altered digital documents, and even duplicated websites.

Therefore, digital certificates and digital signatures were created to thwart these security breaches and provide protection to digital interactions and transactions.

What is a Digital Certificate?

Digital Certificates are like a digital identification card. They are used to verify the owner’s identity when it is shared with others. For example, when a document is signed with a digital certificate, the person receiving the document is guaranteed the authenticity of the sender because the Certificate Authority has verified the owner’s identity.

What is a Certificate Authority?

The Certificate Authority, or CA, is a reputable security organization like a government organization, security agency, or a tech company. The CA runs a background check on the certificate applicant before they issue the certificate.

When Would You Use a Digital Certificate?

The following are some reasons why you would use a digital certificate:

  • Owner’s identity is verified to the receiver
  • The CA can be contacted about the owner
  • Certificates are difficult to duplicate or tamper with
  • The CA can revoke the certificate if it is misused

How Do Digital Certificates Make a Difference?

The use of digital certificates provides the following benefits:

  • The flow of data between the certificate’s owner and the recipient is tamper-proof
  • Unauthorized users are prevented from eavesdropping on the exchange
  • Data is scrambled so that only the recipient, with the key to decrypt, can access the real information
  • The sender’s legitimacy can always be checked on/verified by contacting the CA

What is a Digital Signature?

Digital signatures are like virtual signatures. No, this does not mean that digital signatures are a scanned version of your signature, but rather a digital attachment to a file that establishes the identity of the signer. Also, with the inclusion of a digital signature, the contents of the document that the digital signature is attached to – cannot be altered. If for any reason, an attempt is made to alter the contents in the document, the digital signature will become invalidated, and the whole document will become redundant.

When Would You Use a Digital Signature?

The use of a digital signature establishes the following for the data that has been shared:

  • Integrity: Both the sender and the recipient have the same document, with the same information intact
  • Authenticity: The contents of the document have not been tampered with by the recipient
  • Non-Repudiation: The signer is prevented from denying or non-repudiation at a later date

How Do Digital Signatures Make a Difference?

Digital Signatures use the standard and accepted format – Public Key Infrastructure – to provide the highest levels of security and universal acceptance. In many countries today, digital signatures have the same legal significance as a penned signature. Digital signatures are used to thwart forging or tampering of important documents.

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