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What is an SSL certificate? What is a self-signed certificate?

SSL Certificates

SSL certificates are used to create a secure, authenticated communication channel between a web server and a browser such as Internet Explorer. Typical use of this secure channel is to pass passwords and credit card numbers between the browser and the shopping cart software running on a web servers.

Purchased SSL certificates are signed by a "trusted" certificate authority (CA). The cost for a signed SSL certificate depends on the CA and the identity checks that the CA uses before issuing a certificate. The ones we sell at cost $75/year.

Ideally, end users understand the differences between the checks that SSL certificate authorities (CAs) make before they issue a signed SSL certificate. The idea of the checks is to prevent a rogue operator from getting a signed SSL certificate for and to make sure that the end user always has legitimate contact information for the web site's operator. In practice, however, most end users have no idea of the difference between the identity verification processes used by Verisign vs. Equifax vs. Comodo vs. Brand X or the procedures major browser vendors use to verify SSL CAs.

SSL certificates are almost always keyed to the host name of the web site. For example, consider the SSL certificate for If you visit it should come up without any browser warnings and the secure site padlock icon should be visible. However, if your visit instead, you probably get a browser warning because the host name does not match the host name embedded in the certificate.

Self-signed Certificates

SSL certificates can be "self-signed". It's usually a pain to figure out how to self sign a certificate. The nice part is that self signed certificates are free (no CA fees). However, self-signed certificates don't work in all browsers and result in warnings in browsers that do support them.


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