I am a newbie in this field. I am confused with why SSL certificates cannot be free of charge. In my understanding the certificate is just a text file consisting of cryptic numbers installed on a server. What do the SSL certificates cost?
SSL certificates provide two things, encryption and authentication. For encryption, any SSL certificate will do. You can use a self-signed certificate which you can make free of charge and it will provide encrypted communication between your server and a client.
The problem is that since it lacks any authentication, an attacker could simply make their own certificate and claim to be the server you want to connect to. Your browser wouldn't know the difference and would connect to the attacker with an encrypted connection and the attacker could then attach to the real server and monitor all your communication.
To avoid this problem, SSL certificates also need to provide authentication and that means that someone has to verify domain ownership and identity information. The policies have to be administered and systems have to be run to handle dealing with lost keys. Relationships also have to be built with browser makers to get the root keys for the certificate authorities in to the applications. This all has costs and so those costs are passed on to those who buy SSL certificates from a Certificate Authority.
In exchange for that cost, the CA verifies the identity of the organization and domain that they are issuing the certificate to. Now back in our original case, the attacker may be able to get between the client and the server, but they can't get the client to connect to their SSL certificate since it isn't trusted and if the client connects with the real SSL certificate, then the encryption kicks in blocking the attacker from being able to monitor what is happening.
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You can certainly generate your own SSL certificate. Charges are not for the generation of them; rather the fee is for someone else to say they trust your certificate.
Presentation of a cert doesn't mean anything, it's the chain of trust associated with it that has meaning. You don't know me, and if I gave you a cert that said I'm Bob Smith of www.google.com, you would either trust me (fool!) or not. If I gave you a similar cert that carried the trust of, say, Verisign, if you trust them then you would extend that trust to me. Verisign isn't going to do that for free since they have administrative requirements before they'll trust me enough to relay that trust to you.
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There are not many free things in this world.
If you want to use SSL publicly and you want the browser to display a trusted status for a root CA cert then you will need to use a trusted CA to sign your cert. This is where VeriSign, Go Daddy etc come in. IT is quite expensive to maintain a Trusted Root Cert Authority. You need infrastructure, auditing, staff, etc to provide certs then you need to pay browsers vendors to store them in the browser, around $250K for IE for example although that number was a while ago.
If your SSL certs are internally facing then, you can create your own CA, create your own certs using OpenSSL and then push them out to your corporate users. This is much cheaper but not exactly free as you still need infrastructure, staff etc to maintain it.