Why is CBA Hot Right Now?

November 15, 2022

Certificate-Based Authentication

Passwords have long been a source of frustration for IT security personnel. They’re easily forgotten, so users often do things they shouldn’t, like choosing passwords that contain familiar information. However, those kinds of passwords are easy pickings for even amateur hackers. All they need is a bit of personal information from your life to gain access using your system credentials. Because of that, certificate-based authentication (CBA) has become a popular way to authenticate users.

What is CBA Cybersecurity?

A CBA login involves using digital certificates that originate from cryptography. The certificates identify the user, machine, or device requesting access to a network, application, or other resources. CBA differs from other authentication methods like one-time passwords (OTP) and biometrics focusing on humans. Any end user and even endpoints can use CBA, including personal computers, servers, and Internet of Things (IoT) devices.

One reason that so many organizations are switching end users from pure password-based authentication to CBA is the security it provides. Many companies combine both methods to set up more robust user authentication protocols. CBA also helps reduce the success of phishing attempts, where bad actors manage to obtain personal information from users through social engineering. CBA prevents hackers from leveraging stolen passwords to access applications, systems, and networks.

How Does CBA Work?

Digital certificates function as electronic passwords or files. They’re used to identify any entity trying to gain access to a resource using cryptography and public key infrastructure (PKI). PKI tools manage the public keys being encrypted. Modern web browsers all support PKI infrastructure.

The digital certificate holds information that identifies the certificate holder and contains a copy of the public key. Examples of data stored within a certificate include the name of a company, a specific department, or an IP address.

CBA certification starts with an end user digitally signing the data used as their private key. That information travels with the digital certificate across a network to a destination server. That server compares the signed data sent by the user with the public key within the certificate. Users only gain access once the server authenticates that the public and private keys match.

Where Can You Use CBA?

You can use certificate-based authentication in various ways, including:

  • Logging into your desktop (such as Windows and MacOS)
  • Accessing corporate email
  • Accessing cloud-based services or applications
  • Identifying machines that communicate with backend services
  • Determining if a laptop or mobile device belongs to an authorized employee
  • Identifying servers located within an enterprise for mutual authentication

The flexibility of CBA is a big reason why it’s used in network security tools and corporate networking.

Is CBA the Same as Authorization?

It’s easy to get confused about authentication versus authorization. Some resources on the internet use the terms interchangeably, which is a mistake. Both exist for different purposes in the realm of cybersecurity.

Authentication, including CBA, is about identifying that someone is whom they claim to be. It’s used to keep out entities looking to gain unauthorized access to places like websites and services. Passwords and security questions are two common forms of authentication many organizations relied on in the past.

Today, in addition to CBA and multi-factor authentication (MFA), companies have turned to strong Authenticators (such as YubiKeys or SmartCards). The user’s credentials are safely stored on the Authenticator that is resistant to hacking. Authorization kicks in once a user gain access via authentication. Once the user is authenticated, authorization determines where you can go and what actions you can take within a resource.

For example, an IT user at a company might have access to a business application that lets them perform maintenance but would not allow them to make direct updates. A service user would not be able to change any system functions, but they would be able to update customer information.

What are the Benefits of CBA?

Now that we have a better understanding of CBA, how it works, and how it protects organizations, let’s look at some of the benefits of adopting the methodology.

1. Better Security

Public key encryption methods require an associated private key pair match before granting authorization. It’s more secure because decryption only occurs when there is a direct match between them.

It also relegates bad password practices like shared logins and post-it notes containing passwords to the past. CBA is also more phishing resistant, meaning that hackers can’t shut down an organization based solely on stealing credentials from users.

Certificates also make it possible to identify both parties involved in a transaction. That makes it easier for administrators to pick up on any suspicious activity. For example, they can spot when someone tries to use a flagged account to perform actions on a network.

2. Externally accessible

Organizations can use CBA certificates to verify users outside of the company. Vendors, contractors, freelancers, and other partners may need to tap into business system resources for various reasons. CBA represents a secure way for companies to offer network access without requiring extra training or software expenditures.

 3. User-friendly

Certificates are easier for company users to handle versus other authentication methods. There’s minimal effort put on the user once a certificate gets installed on the Authenticator of choice.

4. Embraced by Microsoft

Microsoft has embraced certificates for Azure Active Directory (AD) authentication. Certificates provide not only enhanced security but also more efficient authentication overall across Microsoft’s infrastructure.


CBA as an approach works very well for end user authentication. It works well with strong Authenticators such as YubiKeys and SmartCards. Plus, Microsoft has fully embraced CBA. Taken as a whole, these factors are making CBA a “hot” approach to authentication.

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. Is CBA more secure than passwords?

CBA uses encrypted public and private keys to verify the identities of users issuing access requests. There’s minimal need for user involvement, making it a better option for cybersecurity than passwords.

  1. Does CBA Grant Authorization?

The CBA authentication method identifies users before granting them access to resources. Authorization defines what level of access a user receives after approval.

Learn More

Working with IAMs, Axiad has a unique approach to CBA. Further, this approach provides a critical capability – credential management at scale to help organizations migrate to Azure AD. To learn more, please visit our Certificate-Based Authentication for IAM page.

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Axiad Team
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