eMudhra Blog Digital Signature Certificates

What are Digital Signature Certificates?

By eMudhra Editorial on April 24, 2023
What are Digital Signature Certificates?

digital signature certificate (DSC) consists of a pair of cryptographic keys – private key and public key called asymmetric keys that binds the identity of an individual or organization that signs the digital documents. It is issued by a trusted third party called a Certification Authority (CA) after verifying the identity of the applicant using valid ID proof. DSC contains information such as the name of the holder, public key, validity period, and name of the issuing CA, and is used to digitally sign documents, authenticate the identity of the sender, and ensure the integrity of the document.

Unlike other forms of authentication or authorization techniques such as passwords, etc. which rely on shared secrets, Digital Signature Certificates use a separate private key and public key that is not shared but follow mathematical properties ensuring a 1:1 mapping. Digital Signature Certificates are therefore considered far more secure than other forms of authentication or authorization.

How are Digital Signature Certificates Created?

The process of creating a digital signature certificate involves various components such as private keys, public keys, hash functions, and digital signature algorithms.

Here's a step-by-step overview of how digital signature certificates are created:

  1. Key pair generation: The first step is to generate a pair of cryptographic keys - a public key and a private key. The public key is shared with others, while the private key is kept secret by the owner and typically stored in a secure device called a Crypto Token or Hardware Security Module which is FIPS 140-2 Level 2 certified and above as per NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology, USA) standards. Common algorithms used for key pair generation are RSA, DSA, and ECDSA.
  2. Certificate Signing Request (CSR): Entity seeking the DSC creates a Certificate Signing Request, which includes the public key, the entity's identifying information (such as name, organization, and email address).
  3. Submit CSR to a Certificate Authority (CA): Entity sends the CSR to a trusted Certificate Authority, which is responsible for verifying the entity's identity and issuing the digital signature certificate. The CA performs identity verification through different methods such as Electronic KYC, Physical KYC or via Bank’s KYC repository.
  4. Certificate creation and signing: Once the CA verifies the entity’s identity, it creates and signs the user’s digital certificate containing the entity's public key, identifying information, CA's signature, and other relevant data, such as the certificate's expiration date with its own key.
  5. Distribution of digital certificate: CA sends the signed digital certificate back to the entity, who can now share it with others to prove their identity as part of an online transaction.

The system of "Public Key Infrastructure" or “PKI” is designed to ensure trust in the digital ecosystem by typically using a hierarchical derivation of trust starting with the Root CA (typically operated by a Govt. entity) to Issuing CA (for ex: eMudhra) to End Users who can then use the DSC to authorize and identity themselves in a reliable manner in an online transaction. 

Why are digital signatures considered legally non-repudiable?

Digital Signature Certificates provide legal non-repudiation because they use cryptographic techniques to ensure that the signature cannot be forged or altered and that the identity of the signer can be verified. The United Nations Model Law on Electronic Signatures 2000 recognizes the legal validity of digital signatures and acknowledges their ability to provide non-repudiation. The same text has been adopted as part of the Electronic Transactions Act or Information Technology Act in most countries worldwide.

The strength of encryption (2048 Bit for RSA algorithm, 256 Bit for ECC algorithm) used in digital signature certificates ensures that the private key used to create the signature cannot be accessed or used by anyone other than the owner, further enhancing the security and non-repudiation properties of the certificate.

You can check here to find the country-specific local laws and compliance when using digital signatures in their specific jurisdiction.

Role of Certifying Authority as a Trusted Third Party

A Certifying Authority (CA) is a trusted third party in the context of digital signatures and encryption. CAs play a crucial role in ensuring the security and authenticity of digital certificates, which are used to establish trust in online transactions, communications, and the identity of individuals or entities. The primary roles and responsibilities of a Certifying Authority include:

  • Identity verification: CA is responsible for verifying the identity of the individual or organization requesting a digital certificate.
  • Certificate issuance: CA signs the certificate using its own private key, vouching for the authenticity of the information contained within the certificate.
  • Certificate revocation: In case a certificate is compromised, no longer needed, or if there's a change in the certificate holder's information, the CA can revoke the certificate. A Certificate Revocation List (CRL) is maintained and regularly updated by the CA to list all the revoked certificates. Alternatively, the CA can use the Online Certificate Status Protocol (OCSP) to provide real-time information on the validity of a certificate.
  • Maintaining trust: The CA's trustworthiness is essential for the security of the entire system. The CA must maintain strong security measures, such as physical security, network security, and secure key management practices, to protect its private key and ensure the trustworthiness of the certificates it issues.
  • Root certificate distribution: The CA's public key (root certificate) must be distributed and installed in devices, browsers, and operating systems to enable users to verify the authenticity of the certificates issued by the CA.
  • Audit and compliance: CAs are subject to audits and regulations to ensure they maintain strict security standards and adhere to industry best practices.

How is data or document signed?

Here is a visual representation:


How are Digital Signature Certificates validated?

Digital signature certificates are validated to ensure their authenticity and to verify that the certificate has been issued by a trusted Certificate Authority (CA). The validation process typically involves the following steps:

  1. Check the certificate's signature: The recipient of the digital certificate uses the CA's public key to verify the CA's signature on the certificate. If the signature is valid, it confirms that the certificate was indeed issued by the trusted CA and has not been tampered with.
  2. Verify certificate validity period: Digital certificates have a specific validity period, which is defined by a start date (not Before) and an end date (not After). The recipient should check that the current date and time fall within the certificate's validity period.
  3. Check certificate revocation status: A certificate can be revoked by the CA if it has been compromised, if the certificate holder's information has changed, or if the certificate is no longer needed. The recipient should check the revocation status of the certificate by referring to the Certificate Revocation List (CRL) published by the CA or using the Online Certificate Status Protocol (OCSP) for real-time status updates.
  4. Confirm subject and issuer details: The recipient should verify the subject's identifying information (e.g., name, organization, domain) to ensure it matches the intended entity. Additionally, the issuer's details should match the trusted CA that signed the certificate.
  5. Validate the certificate chain: Typically, digital certificates are issued by intermediate CAs rather than root CAs. This adds an extra layer of security and helps protect the root CA's private key. When validating a digital certificate, the recipient should also validate the entire certificate chain, which includes the intermediate and root certificates.

Use Cases of Digital Signature Certificate

  1. Digital Signature Certificates (DSCs) are used to establish trust, authenticate identities, and secure communications in various contexts. Some common use cases of Digital Signature Certificates include:
  2. Secure email communication: DSCs can be used to sign and encrypt emails, ensuring that the recipient can verify the sender's identity and that the email content remains confidential and tamper-proof.
  3. Document signing: Digital signatures can be used to sign electronic documents such as contracts, agreements, or invoices, providing a legally binding and non-repudiable proof of the signatory's identity and the document's integrity.
  4. E-commerce transactions: DSCs enable secure online transactions by authenticating the identity of the parties involved and ensuring the confidentiality and integrity of sensitive data, such as credit card information or personal details.
  5. E-government services: Many government agencies require digital signatures for online services, such as tax filing, license applications, or procurement processes. DSCs help to streamline these processes while ensuring secure and authenticated communication between citizens and the government.
  6. E-banking and financial services: Banks and financial institutions use digital certificates to secure online banking transactions, authenticate users, and protect sensitive customer data.
  7. Software and code signing: Developers can use digital signatures to sign their software or code, ensuring that the end-users can verify the authenticity of the software and that it has not been tampered with or altered by malicious third parties.
  8. Secure remote access: DSCs can be used to authenticate users for remote access to secure networks or systems, such as Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) or remote desktop connections, ensuring that only authorized individuals can access sensitive resources.
  9. Website security (SSL/TLS): Digital certificates are used to secure websites and establish trust with visitors. A website with a valid SSL/TLS certificate ensures that the connection between the user's browser and the website is encrypted and that the website's identity has been verified by a trusted Certificate Authority (CA).

What are the applications of DSCs (Digital Signature Certificates)?

Digital Signature Certificates are typically used for two broad use cases:

1. Enhancing CyberSecurity

Digital signatures are an essential part of Zero Trust Architecture and help enhance cybersecurity by enforcing the ZTA security model based on the principle of "never trust, always verify." It eliminates the conventional notion of trusted networks and validates all entities and their access requests, regardless of their location.

Here's how Digital Signatures are used in the context of Zero Trust Architecture to enhance cybersecurity:

  • Identity verification: Digital Signatures ensure the sender's identity is verified, making it harder for attackers to impersonate legitimate users or devices. In a ZTA, verifying the identity of users and devices is crucial to prevent unauthorized access.
  • Secure communication: Digital Signatures can be combined with encryption to secure communication between entities. In a ZTA, securing communication channels is critical to prevent eavesdropping or man-in-the-middle attacks.
  • Access control: It can be used in conjunction with other security mechanisms like multi-factor authentication to grant or deny access to resources based on the user's identity and other contextual information. In a ZTA, access control is strictly enforced, and digital signatures contribute to this by ensuring that only authenticated users can access resources.
  • Auditing and monitoring: Digital Signatures provide a way to track and log user activities, which is essential for auditing and monitoring purposes in a ZTA. By analyzing these logs, security teams can detect potential threats, vulnerabilities, or breaches and respond accordingly.

2. Going Paperless

Digital signatures help create paperless processes by mitigating the need for printing, scanning, signing, mailing, and storing physical documents, which in turn reduces paper usage and waste. This reduction contributes to the mission of carbon neutrality by reducing the carbon footprint associated with paper production, transportation, and disposal.

Production of paper requires significant amounts of energy, water, and other resources, and generates greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. By reducing paper usage through the use of digital signatures, we can reduce the demand for these resources and the associated carbon emissions.

Furthermore, the transportation and storage of paper documents also contribute to carbon emissions. Shipping, trucking, and flying paper documents around the world require burning fossil fuels, which release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Storing paper documents in physical file cabinets or storage facilities also requires energy to maintain a controlled environment, such as heating, cooling, and lighting.

Digital signatures eliminate the need for physical transportation and storage of paper documents, as they can be signed and stored electronically. This significantly reduces the carbon footprint associated with document management.

In conclusion, digital signatures help governments and organizations across the board go paperless and contribute to the mission of carbon neutrality. By adopting digital signatures, individuals and organizations can play an important role in reducing their carbon footprint and contributing to a more sustainable future.

Digital Signatures (DSCs) are used across many Government and Private sector Use cases

The following list is not exhaustive. The application areas evolve over time as the government and private sector continue to digitize services and streamline processes.

eGovernance Private Sector
1. Ministry of Corporate Affairs (MCA21):
Company registration and incorporation
Filing of annual returns and forms
Compliance and legal documentation
1. Banking and Finance:
Online transactions
Loan processing
Account opening and management
Regulatory compliance
2. Income Tax and GST Filing:
eFiling of income tax returns
eFiling of GST returns
Registration and compliance
2. Insurance:
Policy issuance
Claims management
Regulatory compliance
Online premium payments
3. eTendering & eProcurement:
Secure online bidding
Vendor registration and management
Contract Management
3. E-Commerce:
Secure transactions
Vendor management
Customer authentication
4. Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) Management:
Online patent, trademark, and copyright filings
Secure document exchange and management
4. Telecommunications:
Subscriber identity management
Billing and customer management
Regulatory compliance
5. Passport Services and ePassports:
Online passport application and renewal
Issuance of ePassports with digital signatures
5. Healthcare:
Patient records management
Data privacy and security
6. eOffice:
Secure document and file management
Interdepartmental communication and collaboration
Digitization of paper-based processes
6. Real Estate:
Property transactions
Lease and rental agreements
Due diligence and regulatory compliance
7. Digital Locker (DigiLocker):
Authentication and access to personal documents
Secure storage and sharing of digital certificates
7. Human Resources:
Employee onboarding and offboarding
Performance appraisals
Employment contracts
Confidentiality agreements
8. Aadhaar-based Services:
e-KYC (Know Your Customer) for various services
Aadhaar-enabled payment systems (AEPS)
Digital life certificates (Jeevan Pramaan)
8. Legal Services:
E-contracts and agreements
Legal document management
Intellectual property filings
Regulatory compliance
9. eCourts:
Online case filing and management
Secure access to court records and judgments
eNotices and summons
9. Manufacturing and Supply Chain Management:
Secure document exchange
Vendor management
Quality control and compliance
Shipment tracking and authentication
10. Voter ID and Election Management:
Online voter registration and updates
Electoral roll management
Secure election-related documentation
10. Education:
Online admissions and enrollment
Student identity verification
E-certificate issuance
Examination and grading management
11. Land Records and Property Registration:
Online property registration
Access to land records and certificates
Digital mutation and title transfer
11. Travel and Hospitality:
Online bookings and reservations
Customer identity verification
Secure payment processing
12. Social Security and Welfare Schemes:
Online application and management of welfare schemes
Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) for subsidies and grants
Secure beneficiary data management
12. Information Technology and Software Development:
Software licensing
Confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements
Secure document and code management
Regulatory compliance

About eMudhra:

eMudhra is a licensed Certifying Authority to issue Digital Signatures in India and a global digital identity and transaction management solutions provider that enables secure digital transformation for businesses and governments. With a focus on creating a trusted digital ecosystem, eMudhra offers a wide range of solutions including digital signatures, PKI solutions, identity and access management, and secure digital document exchange. Our solutions are designed to enhance efficiency, security, and compliance and drive the Zero Trust Agenda across industries. Our products and solutions are used by leading organizations in the public sector, defense, banking, insurance, healthcare, and government sectors, etc. With a strong emphasis on innovation, eMudhra is committed to helping organizations achieve their digital transformation goals by providing world-class technology solutions that enable secure and seamless transactions in the digital world.

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