There’s one little letter that has huge importance when you’re logging into sites or buying your favorite items: it’s the letter ’S’. The ’s’ I’m referring to is the ’S’ in HTTPS. You may never have seen the ’S’ before in your web browser, or you may have seen it and never realized it’s importance. You may know it as that thing that gets added before the website you type in. What is it’s meaning? Why is it important? You shall find these answers in this post!
HTTP and HTTPS are referred to as ‘protocols’. In essence, these protocols are defining how your computer will talk to another computer. As you browse the web, you may notice that some sites use HTTP, while others use HTTPS. If you bring up CNN’s home page edition.cnn.com you’ll notice that it either shows http in front of the URL in the URL bar or just edition.cnn.com. This shows that the site is using the HTTP protocol to communicate. HTTP is a non-secure way of transmitting data from your computer to the website. Data over the HTTP protocol can be intercepted and read at any point between you and the website’s computer. This is what’s known as a ‘man-in-the-middle’ (MITM). A person listening in on your virtual conversation between your computer and the website’s computer can look at all the data that’s being sent. This isn’t a big deal if you’re looking at articles on CNN or searching for content on Wikipedia, but what if you log in to a site or buy something from an online store? You certainly don’t want the bad guys to know your username and password or your credit card number, so how do you protect yourself?
This is where the mighty ’S’ comes to the rescue. The protocol HTTPS is a way of securely sending data from your computer to the website you are interacting with. If a site is using HTTPS you’ll notice the HTTPS in front of the URL. As an example, go to www.facebook.com. In more modern and up-to-date browsers, you’ll likely see the HTTPS colored in either green or red and a lock icon. The green text with the lock icon is stating that you’re communicating securely with this website and everything looks to be going well.
If the https is red, there is probably some type of issue with the site security. It may be that the site’s certificate is out of date or invalid, or it may be that the site includes insecure third-party content, or there may be other issues. In any case, it is always safest not to proceed with a transaction that involves information you would like to keep secure if the HTTPS and lock icon are not green.
HTTPS uses a complicated system to encrypt the data you send to the website and vice versa. A bad guy who is performing an MITM attack will still see the conversation between you and the website, but it will be completely incoherent, like listening to a conversation in a language that’s been made up by the two people talking. Anytime you are doing anything that requires a login, credit card number, social security numbers, or ANY private data, you want to make sure that you see that HTTPS protocol, and if you have the benefit of modern browsers, that the green lock icon is present. NEVER log in or give any sensitive information to a site that does not communicate over HTTPS.