A Guide to the Digital Signature Certificate

A digital signature certificate ensures that sensitive documentation is secure and shared only with authorized users. Here’s what you need to know about it and how to use it in your business.

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Few things are more expensive to a business than a data breach, and a few recent incidents drive that point home. One Canadian lender had to spend $53 million after exposing the personal information of 2.9 million members, and a Norwegian manufacturer may have to pay out as much as $75 million after a cyberattack.

Protecting your data is vital, which is why you can't rely on outdated methods of storing and sharing documents — such as locking it in a file cabinet or sending it over email.

Digital signature certificates help many companies keep their documentation and data secure, ensuring sensitive information is not tampered with or viewed by unauthorized persons.

These certificates are about so much more than electronic document signing — they ensure the integrity of the information itself, which is vital when you’re dealing with sensitive company or personal information.

Understanding how to secure your documents with signatures is an essential element in good business document management. Here’s what you need to know about these certificates, and a practical guide for using them to secure your documents.


Overview: What is a digital certificate?

Digital certificates are credentials that verify that a person who is sending a message or document is indeed who they say they are — and not some imposter. A digital certificate connects an individual's identity to a public and private encryption key, and these keys verify the identity of the certificate owner.

The person who receives the message or document is given a way to send an encrypted reply back to the sender. Digital certificates are key parts of digital signatures, which secure important documents and information.

Were it not for a digital certificate, someone could pretend to be someone else, which may violate the integrity of the document or message in question.


Digital certificate vs. digital signature: What's the difference?

A digital certificate is just one part of a digital signature. A digital signature is the end result of a number of processes, including the certificate, working together to "seal" a document and assure the recipient that all the information is secure and hasn't been compromised by an unauthorized user.

To do this, a digital signature creates an electronic "fingerprint" using a complex encryption process.

Here are a few key terms related to digital signatures from the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency that will help you understand how a certificate fits into the digital signature process:

  • Digital certificates: These certificates contain the public key and verify the identity of the sender.
  • Certificate authority (CA): A CA is a third party who is responsible for validating the sender's identity, and creates the pair of public and private keys. The CA signs the digital certificate after verifying the sender's identity.
  • Hash function: A hash function is a string of numbers and letters created by an algorithm to prevent alteration of a document or message.
  • Public key infrastructure (PKI): These are all of the people and systems that help validate the certificate.
  • Pretty Good Privacy (PGP)/OpenPGP: For entities that prefer not to use PKI, PGP and OpenPGP allow users to sign certificates with interconnected signatures, also known as a "Web of Trust."

Benefits of a digital signature certificate

Digital certificates have a variety of benefits over a standard “wet signature.” Chiefly, those benefits have to do with security, but they will also help you run your business better.

1. It prevents fraud

Digital certificates assure everyone involved in the process that the sender is who they say they are. This ensures that a bad actor can't defraud others by pretending to be someone else.

2. It prevents unauthorized access

It is paramount to prevent your data from being accessed by unauthorized users. If your data is compromised, you may have your identity stolen or lose sensitive business information to criminals. Certificates prevent unauthorized eyes from viewing your data.

3. It makes running your business easier

Digital certificates are an easy way to protect your information without a lot of time commitment on your part. Electronic signature software programs can create them for you. As a result, you don't have to take extensive steps to secure your information, such as meeting in person to exchange documents.

4. It creates an audit trail

Thanks to these digital encryption processes, you'll be able to see exactly who signed documents, how they were altered, who has access to them, and every other important piece of information about the data. You'll have total control over your documentation, which is a must in today's digital age.


How to create a digital certificate to sign documents electronically

Creating a digital certificate is not something you can do on your own, unless you are a programmer or software developer with a lot of expertise in encryption and online document signing. However, software platforms will do this work for you. Here are three easy ways to use software to create digital certificates.

Adobe

Adobe Sign makes it easy to create a virtual signature for PDF documents:

  • Click "Sign > Work with Certificates," which opens a panel.
  • Click "Sign With Certificate" if you just want to sign, or "Certify" if you want control over the document and the ability to certify the documents before others sign.
  • If you lack a certificate, click on the "Edit" menu and then click "Preferences," then "Signatures," then "More, and finally "Identities & Trusted Certificates." Choose Digital IDs and click "Add ID," and then follow the instructions.

For more detailed instructions on creating a certificate through Adobe, refer to the following tutorial video:

Sectigo

Sectigo is a CA that issues SSL and other types of digital certificates. Here is how to create a certificate through it:

  • Log in to your admin account via your purchase confirmation email or through the website.
  • Click the orange "View All" button, then click the certificate you want to work with. Then click the "Setup Sectigo SSL Certificate" button.
  • Follow the instructions and fill out the form to submit a valid certificate request.

For more detailed instructions on creating a certificate through Sectigo, refer to the following tutorial video:

Microsoft Office

Microsoft Office also allows users to create digital certificates, which can be used for verifying any documents created or edited through its software:

  • Click within the document to place your cursor where you want the signature line to be.
  • Click "Insert," then "Text," then "Signature Line, and finally "Microsoft Office Signature Line."
  • Fill out the dialog box with the requested information, such as name, title, and email address.
  • Choose whether to allow comments in the Sign dialog box and whether to show the signing date.

For more detailed instructions on creating a certificate through Microsoft Office, refer to the following tutorial video:


Do you manage your documents digitally — or are you still awash in paperwork?

Shifting your document management to the digital sphere has so many benefits — beyond securing your documents, you will be better able to organize them, and your staff will more easily find and access the documents they need, when they need them.

If you don’t have an electronic filing system and are using physical documents, you must upgrade as soon as possible.

With a digital filing system in place, you’ll be able to sign a document online within seconds, upload it to your server, make it accessible to all who need to see it, and create an audit trail that will show all of the pertinent details about that document — such as who edited, who uploaded it, when it was altered, how it was changed, and much more.

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Teresa Kersten, an employee of LinkedIn, a Microsoft subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool’s board of directors. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Microsoft. The Motley Fool recommends Adobe Systems. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.