Let's talk about the Internet, a vast and interconnected network that many of us use daily without giving a second thought to how it works. We browse web pages, download documents, and share information through this digital landscape. But have you ever wondered how we can trust the security of the websites we visit?
A Web of Connections
The Internet is built on a complex system of links between web pages, made possible by HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol) and HTML (Hypertext Markup Language). These connections create an organic, ever-growing web of information. However, there's a catch: The Internet's structure allows for intermediate servers, like CDNs (Content Delivery Networks) and VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) and hotel wifis to stand between you and the content. This can be great for efficiency, but it also opens the door for bad actors to intercept and steal your personal data.
The Encryption Solution
To protect our information, we need encryption – a way to secure the communication between trusted servers and the devices we use. There are two main types of encryption: symmetric and asymmetric. Symmetric encryption requires both parties to know a shared password, but this can be problematic if the password is intercepted or discovered.
Enter the world of asymmetric encryption. With this method, each service (like google.com) has a public key that's hosted on their web server. When we connect, we take that public key and encrypt our traffic with it. This ensures that only the intended recipient, with the corresponding private key, can read our messages. However, this still doesn't protect us from bad actors who might create fake public keys, tricking us into thinking we're securely connected when in reality, our data is being intercepted.
Trust Issues: The Hotel Example
Imagine you're staying at a hotel with free wifi. How do you know that the wifi isn't compromised and listening to all your traffic? What if the hotel is hosting their own google.com and using their own private and public keys to intercept your messages? Encryption alone isn't enough to solve this problem - we need a reliable way to establish trust.
Enter: SSL/TLS Certificates
To solve this trust issue, we need a third party to verify the legitimacy of public keys. This is where SSL/TLS (Secure Socket Layer) certificates come in. SSL/TLS certificates are issued by trusted Certificate Authorities (CAs) – organizations whose business model revolves around selling trust. These CAs create root certificates, which can be installed in client applications like web browsers.
When a public key is signed with the private key of a trusted CA, it becomes a verified SSL certificate. When you connect to a website, your browser checks the signature on the site's public key against the root certificates installed on your device. If the signature is valid and matches one of the trusted authorities, you can be sure that you're connecting to the legitimate website, not an impostor.
This is, of course, a simplified explanation; in reality you can have trust chains that begin from a root certificate and can have multiple intermediate CA certificates before the final website certificate.
A Safer Internet
Thanks to SSL certificates and the trusted CAs that issue them, we can browse the web with confidence, knowing that our data is protected from bad actors, middlemen and sketchy hotel wifis. By creating a system of trust and encryption, we can enjoy the vast interconnected network that is the Internet, without compromising our security.