SSL Encryption: How Does it Work and Why is it Important?

An outline of the basic workings of SSL encryption and why it is important for any modern website to have it.

Technically speaking, SSL technology has been largely replaced by the TLS protocol in recent years, but the term SSL has still stuck around and is now commonly used to refer to the updated TLS protocol as well. SSL or Secure Socket Layer is essentially a cryptographic protocol used to approve and encode data being transmitted over a network, be it the internet or organization level intranet networks. In lay man terms, SSL ensures that any communication sent from one system to another over the network is sent in a way that prevents unauthorized parties from being able to read the data. Only the intended recipient is able to make sense of the data.

When you visit any website, if you see the padlock icon on the browser address bar before the website URL, it implies that the website holds a valid SSL certificate and that the website you are on is protected with SSL encryption. This is good news for you since any personal, financial or other sensitive data that you may divulge on this website is obscured from the view of any peeping toms.

Even though SSL encryption is primarily being implemented to secure communications over internet and intranet networks, it can also be used to maintain the integrity of data being sent via email, VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) etc.

How Does SSL Work?

When you are connected to a website via a HTTPS (secure version of HTTP) connection, it means that the moment you establish connection, a handshake is initiated in the background without you even having to know about it or be involved. This is called the SSL handshake. If the handshake is successful, it means that the SSL certificate on the server is verified and you are good to go. However, when the handshake fails, your browser will generally show you a warning page that the website is not secure. In some cases, you can only proceed by explicitly expressing that you want to connect to the website anyway. So basically, SSL certificates use a combination of asymmetric and symmetric cryptography to secure communications over the internet.

There are various types of SSL certificates, the 6 most prominent types include EV SSL (extended validity), OV SSL (organization validated), DV SSL (domain validated), Wildcard SSL, MDC (Multi-Domain SSL), UCC (Unified Communications Certificates).

Some of the best websites go for extended validated SSL certificates since these are the best of the lot. However, EV SSL certificates are expensive because of the thorough verification procedure involved before the website can be issued with such an SSL certificate.

Most commercial websites, however, use OV SSL which offers a comparable degree of security and validation. Websites that don’t collect any user data or process financial transactions can do with DV SSL’s where the level of encryption is basic and the certificate is inexpensive and quick to acquire.

SSL is Important and Here’s Why

Even if it may be too technical a term, because you might be fazed by the seemingly complex jargon, SSL encryption is something that’s very important to anyone with a mobile or desktop device that’s connected to Wi-Fi. In a nutshell, SSL encryption allows companies to safeguard people’s confidential information against potential cyber-attacks. Thus, protecting users’ personal details is crucial, and should be something every company invests in, irrespective of the industry in which it specializes.

To give a plausible example, reputable online casinos – despite offering the sheer experience of fun and entertainment – still have the responsibility to offer a reliable and safe platform to its users. Here are the two mainreasons why you should stay away from any website that does not have a valid SSL certificate.

Data protection: First and foremost, all data being transmitted between the server and a client is protected. This is the fundamental use case for SSL encryption and arguably also the most important.

When SSL is implemented on a website, any information that is going from you to the website or coming from the website to you is encoded in a way that no one can make sense of it. You think of it like using secret codes to send a message across. Only the intended recipient of the message has the key to decrypt the message and understand it. When you enter your personal details or your credit card number on an encrypted website, you know that nobody else on the network is able to read the info.

SSL validates the identity of the website: It’s good that your sensitive data is encrypted and concealed from any third parties apart from you and the website you are on, however, what if the website itself cannot be trusted? What if you’re giving away all your sensitive data to an unscrupulous website? SSL can help protect you from such websites as well. If a website holds an SSL certificate, it means that it has undergone a validation process outlined by the Certificate Authority.

Once the Certificate Authority has verified the identity of the website operator/organization, only then is the certificate issued (in case of some SSL certificates). This is similar to how certain public figures and celebrities have verified Twitter accounts and you know that it is not an imposter behind the account.