Overview of TLS and SSL protocols

Ruth C. | July 13, 2020

TLS and SSL protocols lay the foundation necessary for establishing secure and verified connections. However, without coming face-to-face with these concepts, netizens are unlikely to know much about them. Being a responsible member of the online community, you should be familiar with such internal workings. They guarantee proper authentication, data encryption, and smooth communication between endpoints. So, let’s introduce you to the TLS/SSL protocols and their role in networking.

What are the TLS and SSL protocols?

TLS (Transport Layer Security) and SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) are cryptographic protocols in charge of securing data transmission and verifying connections. Underestimating their impact is unwise, and while some use these concepts as synonyms, the difference between them is noteworthy.

The seemingly interchangeable use of HTTPS, SSL, and TLS also adds fuel to the fire. Let’s recap some of the significant milestones during the development of the internet. SSL is an archaic protocol introduced back in 1995 by Netscape. For some years, it served its purpose of establishing encrypted connections between servers and clients. After several attempts to mitigate flaws and exploits, the experts agreed to release a new protocol.

Netscape handed the SSL protocol over to the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). It rebranded the old protocol as TLS and released the first version in 2006. In 2018, the third version emerged, but browsers continue to use the second (recommended) one. To back up, let’s remember that HTTP was the standard protocol until the introduction of HTTPS. When you notice websites that use HTTPS, they also usually apply SSL/TLS. The “S” in HTTPS stands for “Secure,” and these protocols add that layer of protection.

How do they work?

TLS and SSL protocols guarantee that the communications between networks and web servers are immune to common exploits. When you log in to your bank account, you expect private data to be unsusceptible to hacks or leaks. SSL/TLS protocols follow three golden rules to ensure secure data transmission: encryption, authentication, and integrity.

  • Encryption transforms plaintext into ciphertext and makes it difficult for anyone to misuse data without performing decryption.
  • Authentication is the step that checks whether communicating entities are who they claim to be.
  • Integrity refers to the critical procedure of ensuring that the transmitted requests retain their original form and structure. In other words, it makes sure that no one tampers or modifies communications.

Each connection begins with the traditional handshake. During this process, communicating parties “greet” each other and “introduce” themselves. Then, the generation of keys on both ends triggers the encryption.

TLS vs. SSL: which is the standard now?

Nowadays, TLS is the preferred protocol for achieving authenticated interactions between devices on a network or web servers. According to 2018 statistics, 6.8% of websites still used the outdated SSL protocol (despite its deprecation in 2015). In addition to that, 21% of the top 100,000 sites did not upgrade to HTTPS.

However, do not mistake the SSL certificate for the protocol with the same abbreviation. Millions of websites feature such certificates, and they have very little to do with the vulnerable protocol. The purpose of these certificates is to authenticate sites and guarantee their reliability. In fact, they are the ones that make the introductions during the handshake mentioned above.

For instance, a POODLE attack tries to force browsers to revert to SSL from more secure protocols like TLS.

When these protocols are not enough

Despite draining resources and slightly impeding speed, TLS is a necessity for all websites and browsers. With the additional security steps taken, people can prevent data breaches, leaks, and even DDoS attacks. However, while the application of the new-and-improved protocol greatly raises the bar, it does not make the website immune to all digital threats. Media coverage on data breaches, hacks, and other incidents suggests that experts regularly discover new bugs and vulnerabilities. So, even if the TLS 1.3 is a sophisticated variant, it can still contain flaws that hackers could exploit.

A VPN takes one step further: it encrypts all web traffic, without any exceptions. As a result, every minute you spend online is private. You become invisible to commercial and government surveillance. In addition to keeping all your online affairs in order, a VPN can mitigate various cyber attacks. For instance, even if you accidentally visit a website that does not implement the industry-standard encryption, a VPN will offer its assistance. So, choose such tools to beat tracking practices and guarantee that third parties cannot intercept connections.

Ruth C.

Ruth C.

Cybersecurity Researcher and Publisher at Atlas VPN. Interested in cybercrime, online security, and privacy-related topics.



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