Self-signed SSL Cert or CA?


I would like to have the authentication and registration parts of my website encrypted (for obvious reason). This site is currently and older site which some friends and I started in middle school and still use today. I may or may not register it to be a Non-Profit Organization in the near future, but either way, a CA costs money and the organization doesn't have any and we are currently college kids.

Verisign is unreasonable and GoDaddy is $30/year. GoDaddy isn't too unreasonable, and I think their certs are accepted by most web browsers. The thing with GoDaddy is that I don't know why they have different SSL products (i.e.: why is it cheap to not verify me? does this have any implications on the cert and how the browser treats it if it just contains a domain name?)

Also, is there an issue with using my own cert? Could the login page be http, and have a line stating that I use a self-signed cert and here is it's fingerprint and then post the form to an https page? Safari's method isn't too bad or sound too scary. I'm afraid, however, that firefox 3's method will scare people away and give me a tonne of emails saying that my site is being hacked or something. I don't know how IE responds to self-signed certs. (There is also the issue of why pay for something I can create myself with no effort, but I'm not going to pose the philosophical part of it, this is a more practical question.)

In sum, do I give GoDaddy $30 a year or do I just tell people in a small paragraph what I'm doing and give the few people that will actually want my fingerprint it?

Edit: Some on a forum I was reading for more info mentioned that GoDaddy certs are only given if it's on a GoDaddy server, which this isn't. Two things: (1) is this true? and There are other CA's at about the same price, so the argument should still be the same.

Best Answer

There's a common misconception that self-signed certificates are inherently less secure than those sold by commercial CA's like GoDaddy and Verisign, and that you have to live with browser warnings/exceptions if you use them; this is incorrect.

If you securely distribute a self-signed certificate (or CA cert, as bobince suggested) and install it in the browsers that will use your site, it's just as secure as one that's purchased and is not vulnerable to man-in-the-middle attacks and cert forgery. Obviously this means that it's only feasible if only a few people need secure access to your site (e.g., internal apps, personal blogs, etc.).

In the interest of increasing awareness and encouraging fellow small-time bloggers like myself to protect themselves, I've written up a entry-level tutorial that explains the concepts behind certificates and how to safely create and use your own self-signed cert (complete with code samples and screenshots) here.