What is a Self-Signed Certificate? Advantages, Disadvantages & Risks
Authentication and security are the focus of the SSL/TLS protocol. Data communications across open networks can be encrypted with this technology, protecting against alteration and interception by malicious parties.
A self-signed certificate is a digital certificate issued by the person or entity creating the certificate rather than by a trusted third-party certificate authority. This means that the certificate is not backed by a well-known and trusted third party, so it may not be considered as secure as a certificate issued by a trusted authority. S/MIME certificates, code signing certificates, and SSL/TLS certificates are examples of these.
In simpler words, A self-signed certificate is neither privately nor publicly certified by a CA. Instead of seeking the certificate from a public or private CA, it is signed using its private key.
Self-signed SSL certificates usually referred to as private SSL certificates, are what the phrase “self-signed certificates” most frequently refers to. However, as we explained, the phrase also refers to other X.509 digital certificates.
Benefits of using Self-signed SSL Certificates
- Self-signed certificates are fast, free, and easy to issue.
- Self-signed certificates are appropriate for development/testing environments and internal network websites.
- Self-signed Certificates are simple to modify or customize; for instance, they can carry more metadata or have greater key sizes.
- There are zero dependencies on others for the issuance of certificates, which saves time for testing purposes.
Disadvantages of using Self-signed SSL Certificates
- Since a publicly trustworthy CA does not sign self-signed certificates, browsers and operating systems do not trust them. Browsers wouldn’t display the green lock icon or other trust-related visual cues.
- There will always be a “Accept Risk” prompt in opening websites. To access the content on your website, website visitors must pass via a security warning page with error messages like “error self-signed cert” or “err cert authority invalid,” which will adversely affect the traffic on the website.
- Self-signed certificates are highly risky for transaction or financial-related websites that handle memberships, subscriptions, or anything like that.
- Users become vulnerable to data theft and other cyberattacks when attackers create self-signed certificates that can be used in man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks.
The biggest challenge with self-signed certificates is the Lack of visibility. We can keep track of certificates issued through Certificate Authority but keeping track of self-signed certificates issued without any official request or approval process is very difficult. There is no way to determine whether a self-signed certificate (and its private key) has been hacked if the business network is compromised.
Another challenge with self-signed certificates is the Complexity of the Revocation of certificates. If a CA-issued certificate is misused or the private keys are compromised, the CA can revoke the certificate quickly, but in the case of self-signed certificates, there is an entire set of procedures that can make lives miserable!
Security Risks and Need of PKI as a Service
So, the question is, despite so many security risks, why do developers still use Self-signed certificates? The answer is agility and easiness of process. The process of manually submitting a certificate signing request (CSR), waiting hours for verification, and then signing takes much time for them. So, it makes sense for developers to choose self-signed certificates or built-in CAs like HashiCorp Vault or Kubernetes to save time.
Although self-signed certificates make it simple and quick for developers to get certificates, they frequently mess around with the security measures required to protect the network. So, setting up self-signed CAs to issue many certificates is not recommended. Here PKI as a service comes into the picture as it balances security and usability. PKI Operations team may quickly request and issue certificates through self-service workflows, eliminating the need for self-signed certificates. Certificates are issued from a trusted, securely rooted PKI, eliminating risks.
To know more about the Certificates, their risks, and the implementation of self-service PKI workflows, you can request a demo here.