Slipping Your Info Past Hackers: How SSL Protects You Online

What is SSL: Introduction to the Basics

SSL Defined

Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) is the name given to a type of security protocol that websites use to establish links between Web servers and users' browsers. These links are distinct from those that do not utilize SSL technology because they use this protocol to encrypt information. Secure websites use encryption to ensure that the communication between the user and the server remains private and protected. Websites use SSL protocol to determine the variables of encryption for both the transmitted data and the link.

Global Application of Secure Sockets Layer

SSL is the industry standard technological solution and is on millions of different websites around the world use for a variety of purposes, including protecting online financial transactions and the transfer of personal information. By using SSL, websites are protecting sensitive information such as social security numbers, login credentials, and credit card numbers from unauthorized third parties. Without the use of SSL, this information is vulnerable and available to those who might wish to harvest it for personal gain.

How Do You Know Your Information Is Secure?

SSL "Signals": What "HTTPS" really means.

One of the indications that a website is using SSL protocol is the use of "HTTPS" (hypertext transfer protocol secure) rather than simply "HTTP" (hypertext transfer protocol) at the beginning of a Web address. Additionally, many browsers give other indications that they are using SSL protocol to secure the users' data. Some feature a "lock" icon in the address bar, or color-coding for the site's title to show that the site is using an HTTPS connection. If a website begins with HTTPS, it's a strong indication that the website is using SSL or TSL (transport layer security) protocols to keep users' information safe. TSL is an updated version of SSL, and in many cases, users will refer to TSL as SSL for the purpose of simplicity. Both protocols use a PKI (public key infrastructure) system. This system is asymmetric, which means that two different keys are necessary in order to encrypt and decrypt the data in question. The site saves the private key locally, on the site's server, where it is secure from users. The site then transmits a public key to the user. The public key is necessary to decrypt information that the private key encrypted, and vice versa. When the browser and the Web server initially communicate, a unique "session key" is generated. This is what the site uses to decrypt ongoing communication between the browser and the Web server during the session.

How Does Your Browser Know That SSL Protocols Are in Effect?

The "mystery" of certificates on the Internet.

When your browser requests access to a secure website, the website serves your browser with an SSL certificate. An SSL certificate contains, amongst other things, the public key your browser requires to decrypt the information found on the site. Once you've received this certificate and the public key, your browser and the website are able to establish an "SSL handshake," which is used to ensure that the information you send and receive is not visible to other users. This handshake happens very quickly and is typically imperceptible to the user.

Plain text vs. encrypted text.

Without SSL protection, the information you exchange with websites is viewable as plain text by any individual who happens to compromise the link between your browser and the website. When SSL protocols are in use, however, your information is secure. Even if an individual does manage to breach the connection, the information exchanged is available only in an encrypted form, a form that the hacker is unable to glean useful data from.

What Are the Benefits of Using SSL Protocols?

There are three main benefits to using SSL protocols to protect your customers' and your company's information. • It safely encrypts customer data, including personal information and credit card numbers. The use of SSL protection demonstrates that your company is motivated to provide your customers with a safe, productive environment.
 • Because using SSL protocols provides customers with visible cues, including the HTTPS prefix, the lock icon, and color-coded address bars, they're a great way to illustrate your concern about customer safety. This adds legitimacy to your business in general and your website in particular.
 • Studies have shown that customers are far more likely to shop and complete purchases on sites that use HTTPS prefixes indicating SSL protocol use, because SSL protocol use facilitates trust between the organization and the consumer.

What Are Security/SSL Certificates?

Certificates Defined:

As described, an SSL certificate is the means by which a website communicates the private and public keys required for decryption to a certain browser. The administrator installs SSL certificates on the same server as the website they represent. Furthermore, the certificate contains a "subject" that indicates the identity of the SSL certificate or website owner. Also, one of the trusted SSL Certificate Authorities digitally signs the SSL certificate. This assures the user of the certificate and the website's authenticity.

Final Tips: Be Alert; Be Aware.

The use of SSL protocols is of critical importance when it comes to protecting your identity and personal information online. It's vital that users learn to look for the "HTTPS" prefix as well as their browser's other, visual indicators that sites are transmitting information in a secure, encrypted manner. In addition to using sites that promote the use of SSL security protocols, users can also further encrypt their communications with a VPN (virtual private network). While SSL technology and VPN solutions are separate and neither one can fully replace the other, they can work in harmony to provide users with the best, safest online communication options.

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