How Does Certificate Based Authentication Work?

August 3, 2022
Certificate-Based Authentication

Organizations use certificate based authentication (CBA) to ensure that only authorized users and devices can access their network resources. For example, a company may use CBA to allow only employees with valid company-issued certificates to access its email servers. Compared to other types of authentication services, CBA is easy to use and simple to automate.

What Is Certificate-Based Authentication (CBA)?

Certificate based authentication (CBA) is an authentication mechanism that verifies a user’s or device’s identity using digital certificates. A digital certificate is a file that contains information about the holder of the certificate, such as their name, email address, and public key. The certificate is signed by a trusted authority, such as a government agency or a web server, to verify that it is genuine.

Then, a certificate’s validity is confirmed against a list of trusted certificates when a user or device attempts to access a secure resource. The user or device will be denied access if the certificate isn’t on the list.

The Most Popular Types

The most popular types of certificate based authentication are Transport Layer Security (TLS) and Secure Sockets Layer (SSL). TLS and SSL use digital certificates to authenticate the server and encrypt the data exchanged between the server and the client.

Organizations use TLS and SSL to secure communications between their employees and external parties, such as customers and partners. TLS and SSL secure email, website traffic, and virtual private networks (VPNs).

Digital certificates can also be used to authenticate clients. In this case, the client’s certificate is checked against a list of trusted certificates when the client attempts to connect to a server. The client will be denied access if the certificate is not on the list.

What Isn’t Certificate-Based Authentication (CBA)?

Certificate based authentication is sometimes confused with other types of authentication, such as username and password authentication. However, there are several key differences between the two.

CBA verifies the user’s or device’s identity using a digital certificate. In contrast, username and password authentication verifies the user’s identity by checking their credentials against a database.

CBA also differs from two-factor authentication, which requires the user to provide two pieces of evidence to verify their identity. With CBA the digital certificate is the only piece of evidence that is required.

Two-factor authentication is often used in conjunction with certificate based authentication to provide an additional layer of security, but they aren’t the same thing. It is often better for an organization to use multiple levels of security.


How Secure Is CBA?

Certificate-based authentication is a very secure way to verify the identity of users and devices. The digital certificates used in certificate-based authentication are difficult to forge, and the process of verifying the certificate’s validity is automated.

Organizations that use certificate-based authentication can be confident that only authorized users and devices will be able to access their resources.

The security of certificate-based authentication depends on the digital certificates’ strength. The stronger the cryptographic algorithms used to create the certificates, the more difficult it will be for an attacker to forge them.

Organizations should also ensure that their trusted certificate authority is reputable and trustworthy. A malicious certificate authority could issue forged certificates allowing unauthorized access to protected resources. Man-in-the-middle attacks are particularly dangerous.

How Does CBA Work?

Organizations using a username and password authentication service can transition to certificate-based authentication by implementing a public key infrastructure (PKI). But PKI is frequently used to provide invisible layers of authentication and security alongside other methods, such as single-sign-on, rather than as a standalone utility.

A PKI is a system of digital certificates, Certificate Authorities (CAs), and other security tools that are used to secure communications over the Internet. Organizations can use a PKI to issue digital certificates to their employees and partners. They can also set up TLS/SSL for email, website traffic, and VPNs.

The Future of CBA

Certificate-based authentication is a secure and efficient way to verify the identity of users and devices. As more organizations move to the cloud, we will likely see an increase in the use of certificate-based authentication.

The main challenge for organizations using certificate-based authentication is managing the digital certificates. Organizations need to ensure that their trusted certificate authority is reputable, that their digital certificates are up to date, and that they have a plan for recovering from a lost or stolen certificate.

Despite these challenges, it remains a foundational security technology, a secure and convenient way to verify the identity of users. We will not likely move away from certificate-based authentication, but platforms will start to make it easier to use, especially Identity as a Service (IaaS) solutions.

Is Certificate-Based Authentication Right for You?

Certificate-based authentication can be a great way to secure your organization’s resources. Understanding the challenges associated with certificate management is important, but the benefits of using this authentication method often outweigh the challenges.

If you are considering moving to certificate-based authentication, we recommend working with an experienced partner who can help you plan. Axiad provides complete authentication services for organizations that want to maintain better security without building their solutions from the ground up.

Contact Axiad today to find out better methods of managing your certificate-based authentication, as well as for insights into which security solutions are the best option for your organization.

About the author
Axiad Demo

See How Axiad Works

See a comprehensive demo of Axiad and envision how it will revolutionize authentication for you!