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Wi-Fi is one of the most helpful and widely used ways that people get access to the internet. Different networks operate in different areas or might have different classifications, like a private home network or a guest network for public use.
However, most networks still operate on the same principles to provide the same results to everyone who needs access to the web. Part of the principles of good Wi-Fi involves security measures or process protocols to keep data safe and traffic flowing, and part of all this is the CA certificate that can come with a Wi-Fi network.
In this article, we’ll go over what a CA certificate is, what it signifies, why it is installed, and why you might need to get one to operate or access a particular network.
Table of Contents
Once you try connecting to a Wi-Fi network, your device will go through several checks before the connection on the other end merges. If this is a network you set up or one you use frequently, it will happen almost instantaneously.
Even in cases where you might connect to a new network, the actual steps that the Wi-Fi and your device go through will still happen quickly.
All this authentication is a complete process that happens in the background as part of a handshake between your device and the network. Some certifications or security features might be switched off to allow easier connections for public networks that everyone needs access to easily.
However, you should still find a CA even in public networks, so it makes sense to review what they are and how they function.
You can think of a CA, a certificate authority, as a broad group of things. Typically, this includes software that goes through processes between the Wi-Fi and your device, hardware that helps the network run, and the people who operate these elements.
It all runs a bit deeper than that, but the main point of a CA is to provide certificates that include information on necessary security features or services for Wi-Fi operations. We’ll get into each of the major jobs of a CA and what each job does in the next section.
Last, while we will get into installing certificates for Wi-Fi access later, we should note here that there is a difference between installing and accepting certificates like the ones issued by the CA.
Installing means downloading a particular certificate onto your operating system. However, in many cases, the network might ask you to accept a CA certificate in the connection process.
This still accomplishes some of the authentication needed for your device to verify the Wi-Fi network, but it doesn’t install files on the device.
In our first section, we briefly discussed what CA certificates might do. However, it’s important to understand all of their functions in detail.
Certifications provide different types of access or authorization to various networks. When you’re out and about, you may run into a particular network that requires either the acceptance or installation of certification files to achieve access.
Some users can worry about what data is exchanged during this process, so it helps to know exactly what you’re getting and how the certificate works.
In general, we can say that certificates are a security measure that helps your device to know that the Wi-Fi network is what it says it is, or that it is operated by the people who are supposed to operate it. In the past, you may have tried to connect your computer or mobile device to a particular network or visit a page over a certain connection.
Sometimes, you could get a message about authentication or being unable to verify the network’s credentials. This is where CA certificates come into play. Certificates are a way to verify the authenticity of a network. This keeps networks from being able to impersonate particular pages or be otherwise misleading in some way.
As an example, we can look at the case of many universities. Students have usernames and passwords that allow them to get into the school’s network for internet access while on campus. However, an authentication server needs to verify the Wi-Fi client the university is using to allow access for its students.
It does this by implementing a certificate authority that is trusted to go through and make sure all the “actors” are who they say they are. Therefore, when you’re first connecting to something like a university domain, it may ask you to accept a certificate authority of some kind in order to continue.
In most cases, there is no need to be wary of this. A certificate authority either needs to verify particular websites you might want to access, or it might need to verify RADIUS servers.
In either case, you may need to accept a certificate authority so that this process can complete, which will then grant you access to the content and connections you want.
We’ve provided you with an excellent overview of how these certificates work, but it is a good idea to mention their main purposes.
You might think it’s authentication, which is pretty much true. However, they do a few other things:
1. A certificate authority issues the necessary certificates to the entities that need them.
2. They maintain information related to certificates and their statuses. This means that they may also issue lists that include entities that have had certificates revoked as well.
3. It publishes current certificates and relevant information so that entities can implement necessary security services.
4. Finally, a certificate authority houses revoked or expired certifications archives.
Earlier, we talked briefly about installing or simply accepting a certificate for Wi-Fi access. Because some users are asked to install files related to certification, it makes sense to talk about what it means to do so.
These things are a bit different from one another, and many users can get a little confused on just what it means to install a certificate. What’s important to remember is that your devices may have certificate authorities already installed on them.
This is not a problem; the developer trusts the particular CA that might come pre-installed as part of your system. What it means to install certificates depends on the type we are discussing. There are two main types of certificates that you will encounter.
Client certificates have one primary job: they are something that networks use in order to prove that you are who you say you are to another device. More accurately, the device you are using is verified and found to be either safe or authorized to access the network or other device to which you want to connect.
Root certificates tend to carry more weight or power than their client cousins. You can think of a root certificate as a go-between certificate that your computer or device trusts to work with other certificates.
In other words, a root certificate is something that your computer will trust implicitly, and that root is responsible for signing off on the validity of other certificates your device might need to authenticate.
The kinds of other certificates you might expect a root to work with could include ones that let your computer trust a particular website, or they could deal with software you want to download and use. Both root and client certificates are important, but root ones get more power and responsibility.
Installing a certificate in Wi-Fi means that you trust that certificate to provide you with safe websites, software, and other things you might want to use.
Installing certificates is a good security measure, but it is important to trust the proper certificate authorities. In this way, you can avoid bad actors who might misuse certifications. You don’t want to end up with harmful software or other problems from trusting something like a bad root certificate.
When an entity sets up a Wi-Fi connection or internet domain, part of that process will involve getting the proper certifications for authentication.
Good certificates mean data is encrypted and protected once people connect to a network. Things like registering for sites or logging into them will be protected thanks to the certificates that verify that everyone is who they say they are.
In most cases, you, as the user, will accept authorization for certificates to run when you visit particular websites or want access to specific domains.
As we mentioned, you may already have certificates on your device for these purposes. If someone is setting up a domain or server for Wi-Fi, they need to obtain a certificate as a way to safeguard their websites and processes.
Multiple certificate authorities take on issuing relevant certificates, the first major job we mentioned in a previous section.
Which one you go with may depend on the kind of certificate that you’re after. Domain, Extended, and Organization validation are just a few of the common certificate types you may be after.
In an age of increasing online presence that is matched by even more malicious actors, web-based security is vitally important. Digital certificates from the proper authorities can provide different sites or networks with the tools they need to authenticate entities that are supposed to have access while repelling those that are not.
While some level of trust is necessary to accept or use certificates safely, they are there for the protection of users who need to access the web.