As people go about their everyday lives, many don’t realize just how much of their daily tasks are dependent on the encryption and verification of identities via public key infrastructure (PKI).

PKI underpins finance, commerce, communication, transportation, government and healthcare, to name just a few areas. It secures everything from email accounts and Internet of Things (IoT) devices to payments and healthcare data. It's in passports, credit cards, key fobs and more.

PKI is what allows both humans and non-humans (machines, devices, software, bots, etc.) — whether it’s the lone printer in the corner of a home office or an array of sophisticated IoT devices in a factory to verify their digital identities and establish digital trust when interacting with other humans, machines or digital services.

Unfortunately, this very same ubiquity is why bad actors have honed in on identity as a convenient attack surface witness the method of attack used on the UN network or the most recent Verizon 2022 Data Breach Investigations Report, which reveals that stolen credentials led to nearly 50% of attacks. The success of these attacks means that bad actors will continue to try to find ways to use vulnerabilities around digital identities for their own malicious ends for the foreseeable future.

Many organizations have focused on zero trust initiatives in recent years as a way to blunt the potential impact of cyberattacks and other threats. In the zero trust framework, every user, device and IP address accessing a resource is by default considered a threat until proven otherwise. This is a good first step, however, there is a growing recognition that there can’t be effective zero trust without a foundational layer of effective digital trust. Digital trust is the end goal, and that is achieved with an identity-first security strategy.

A starring role for digital certificates

An identity-first security strategy is deeply rooted in cryptography. Digital certificates powered by PKI and issued by Certificate Authorities (CAs) provide a strong level of user and device authentication.

To create an identity-first security framework, every user and machine trying to access a network or resource should start with a strong cryptographic digital identity so that an enterprise can verify who or what it is interacting with, allowing for the establishment of digital trust.

Pause for a moment to consider just how crucial this element of digital trust is and how many everyday interactions it underlies. Someone who is reading this article on the web, for example, clicked on a link or entered a URL that used a digital certificate to establish that the site they were visiting was, in fact, the site it purported to be.

In an enterprise, there can be hundreds of these types of identity verifications happening constantly across multiple aspects of the organization, just to keep “business as usual” flowing without interruption.

It’s not just in the usual areas either, like having a secure website that consumers trust they can interact with. Due to ongoing digital transformation within enterprises, there are a multitude of new use cases requiring digital certificates, ranging from the ability to conduct DevOps in a secure manner to securely enabling cloud environments and being able to take advantage of robotic process automation (RPA) without worrying that new attack vectors are being created.

Put simply, secure digital business today requires identity-first security. There are too many aspects of business that wouldn’t function safely and effectively without that layer of trust digital certificates provide.

The right approach for a fast evolving environment

The emphasis on digital trust is all the more urgent in a world where remote and hybrid work are the new norm. Where enterprises could once safely assume that the vast majority of their end users and endpoints would be operating safely within the perimeter of the corporate firewall and within the four walls of a centralized office, workers are now scattered across locations making it more important than ever to ask, “Who goes there?” when there’s a digital knock at the door.

Likewise, aside from the use cases for digital certificates that are already sprouting up thanks to the digital transformation efforts of the past decade, there are scads more waiting in the wings as blockchain, Web3, and the metaverse all start to find more applications in a wide variety of business settings.

The sheer volume of digital certificates that now need to be managed given their status as the gold standard for authenticating identities and ensuring secure, encrypted communications highlights the need for automated certificate lifecycle management (CLM). Many organizations today, however, still manage digital certificates manually or use outdated approaches like spreadsheets to keep track of overwhelming numbers of certificates. This non-automated approach makes enterprises more susceptible to cyberattacks and the extremely costly interruptions to IT systems and customers that they can cause.

At the start, adopting an identity-first security posture to establish digital trust is a key security measure for companies to mitigate risk. If security leaders design identity-first security strategies rooted in the solid cryptography that digital certificates deliver, they can establish the digital trust they need to navigate their way forward safely and securely.