Risks of Self-Signed Certificates

Why You Need SSL Certificates?

On any average day, you could be logging in to your bank account to make financial transactions. You might visit your health insurance provider’s online portal. You could be signing in to your email provider, or using your email account to log in to a bunch of web applications for your daily job. That is a lot of sensitive data being sent and received in a regular web browsing session, and your data transfer needs to be secure. 

HTTPS, the secure version of HTTP, ensures safe and secure data transfer between your web browser and any website on the internet by encrypting underlying data. A padlock on the URL bar indicates that the website uses HTTPS, meaning your browsing session is secure. Otherwise, your browser will warn you that the website is ‘not secure’. 

HTTPS uses the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) protocol for data encryption (also known as Transport Layer Security – TLS). SSL encryption needs two components to work – a public key and a private key. The private key is stored on a web server, and only the website owner can access it. Meanwhile the public key is made available to anyone who wishes to interact with the web server in a secure manner. The website uses the private key to decrypt data that is encrypted using the public key. 

2022 Ponemon Report: The State of Certificate Lifecycle Management in Global Organizations

That’s where SSL certificates come into play. Essentially, an SSL certificate is a data file hosted on the website’s origin server that contains the following information:

    • Name of the Certificate Authority (CA) that issued the certificate
    • Issuing CA’s digital signature
    • Website domain name the certificate was issued for
    • Name of the person, organization, or device it was issued to 
    • All associated sub-domains
    • Issue date and expiration date of the certificate
    • The Public Key

Here’s why your website needs an SSL certificate:

1. SSL Encryption

Any web browser attempting to communicate with a website will reference its SSL certificate in order to obtain the public key, encrypt data and carry out secure communication. Since SSL certificate contains the public key, it becomes SSL/TLS encryption becomes important.

2. Authentication

Before exchanging sensitive user information, the web client i.e the browser needs to verify it is communicating with the right server that actually owns the domain. To do this, browsers verify the identity of the website by checking domain ownership information contained on the SSL certificate. This protects against domain spoofing attacks. 

What are Self-signed SSL Certificates?

SSL certificates are usually issued by well-known, publicly trusted CAs. Some large organizations have their own dedicated internal public key infrastructure (PKI), and function as a private certificate authority to issue SSL certificates. Such certificates are ‘privately trusted’ and used to authenticate users and devices on an internal network. 

However, it is also possible to issue a certificate that is not signed by any CA, public or private. Instead of requesting a private key from a CA, a self-signed certificate is signed with its own private key. Self-signed certificates are created, issued, and signed by the company or developer responsible for maintaining the website that needs to be signed. Self-signed certificates are free, and might work for internal websites. While this could be a way to reduce costs on certificates for internal-facing websites, it can open up organizations to serious security risks.

Control Your Certificates Before They Go Rogue!

Security Risks of Self-signed SSL Certificates

Self-signed certificates are safe in a testing environment, and you can use them while you are waiting for your certificates officially signed by CAs. But, using them in a production environment leaves the systems exposed to vulnerabilities and security breaches.  

  • Not trusted by browsers and users

Self-signed SSL certificates are not trusted by browsers, because they are generated by your servers, and not validated by trusted CAs, like Cloudflare and Go Daddy. Websites with self-signed certificates display warning messages, stating that the security certificate of the website is not issued by the certificate authority and therefore the communication is not secured. 

Such security warnings drive away the users from your website, as the users’ data shared through the server can be easily intercepted by malicious attackers. Self-signed certificates contain private and public keys within the same entity, and they cannot be revoked, thus making it difficult to detect security compromises. 

A Comprehensive How-To Guide to Certificate Lifecycle Management

  • Exposure to vulnerabilities

Compromised private keys can be a major threat to the organization’s infrastructure. Certificate authorities can identify the compromised certificates and revoke them. But for self-signed certificates, the organizations cannot revoke them, and often fail to keep a tab on them, causing compromised certificates getting overlooked or unnoticed. Such compromised certificates are the gateways for the malicious actors to gain access into the network and launch advanced and sophisticated malware attacks, man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks, phishing attacks, and botnets. 

  • No warranty and technical support

Third-party certificate authorities offer warranty amounts against certain losses, which depend on the type of SSL product purchased. But, for self-signed certificate users, there is no warranty amount allocated against losses incurred due to cyber-attacks or data breaches. CAs provide dedicated technical support to the clients using certificates issued by them. But, for self-signed certificate users, there will be no additional dedicated technical support teams, as these certificates are generated in-house. 

  • Lack of visibility and control

Organizations use thousands of digital certificates, issued by both private and public CAs, and it is hard to track each of these certificates manually. Knowing how many certificates are there, who owns them, where are they located and the storage of private keys are pivotal in strengthening cyber defense. 

Organizations using innumerable self-signed certificates often end up having blurred visibility into the certificate infrastructure. Unfortunately, if there is a breach in your organizational network, you would not know if it is caused due to compromised self-signed certificate and private key associated with it. 

  • Not meeting security requirements

Digital certificates issued by trusted certificate authorities maintain robust cybersecurity standards, like the latest ciphers and hashing technologies. Whereas, self-signed SSL certificates are developed internally, which are often not aligned with the latest security standards, for instance using low ciphers. 

It is critical to manage and monitor all the digital certificates and keys existing within the corporate network. All the certificates, both vetted by CAs and self-signed certificates responsible for the functioning of the internal and public sites, must be secured and protected and undergo frequent surveillance. 

Using self-signed certificates for your external-facing sites can be detrimental for your business as your clients become reluctant to share their credentials on your website, harming your brand reputation and customer trust. 

For internal LAN-only services, you can use self-signed certificates, but you have to ensure that the issuing CA server is well-protected from cybercriminals, and is located in a place that is not accessible by all the employees of your organization. 

With AppviewX CERT+ you can easily deploy SSL certificates and gain visibility into the certificate lifecycle and also certificate infrastructure as a whole. 

Conclusion

Organizations need not compromise on a secure certificate infrastructure to save on costs. AppViewX makes it possible to easily deploy SSL certificates and monitor them throughout the certificate lifecycle, without making heavy investments in hardware or security professionals. Schedule a call with one of our experts to learn more about our turnkey solutions for certificate lifecycle management.

Let’s get you started on your certificate automation journey

Tags

  • certificate lifecycle management
  • Certificate Management
  • self-signed certificates
  • SSL Certificate Lifecycle Management
  • SSL certificates
  • tls certificates

About the Author

Debarati Biswas

Senior Specialist- Product Marketing

A content creator and a lifelong learner with an ongoing curiosity. She pens insightful resources to address the pain points of the readers and prospective buyers and help them make well-informed decisions.

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