In cryptography, a public key certificate (also known as a digital certificate or identity certificate) is an electronic document used to prove ownership of a public key. The certificate includes information about the key, information about its owner’s identity, and the digital signature of an entity that has verified the certificate’s contents are correct. If the signature is valid, and the person examining the certificate trusts the signer, then they know they can use that key to communicate with its owner.
In a typical public-key infrastructure (PKI) scheme, the signer is a certificate authority (CA), usually a company that charges customers to issue certificates for them. In a web of trust scheme, the signer is either the key’s owner (a self-signed certificate) or other users (“endorsements”) whom the person examining the certificate might know and trust.
Certificates are an important component of Transport Layer Security (TLS, sometimes called by its older name SSL, Secure Sockets Layer), where they prevent an attacker from impersonating a secure website or other server. They are also used in other important applications, such as email encryption and code signing.