Making Sense of Website Encryption: TLS vs. SSL

Chances are you‘ve heard the terms "TLS" and "SSL" thrown around when people talk about securing communication over the internet. We all want privacy and protection for our valuable personal data as it flows between our devices and servers across the world.

But what exactly do TLS and SSL mean? Can you even tell the two apart? If not, don‘t worry – even experts mix them up sometimes due to the complex history between these two cryptographic protocols.

I‘ll clear up all the confusion here and make these security standards easy to grasp regardless of your tech background. Let‘s start from square one…

Encrypted Web Traffic 101

Before we debate TLS versus SSL specifics, it‘s important to understand why website encryption matters in the first place.

As you browse online through sites like your email provider, bank, hospital portal, or e-commerce stores, data constantly transmits back and forth between your computer and those servers. This includes private information like your login credentials, financial details, medical records, and more.

Unfortunately, without encryption anyone could easily intercept the raw data as it flows over the physical network connections linking your computer to the websites. The restaurant WiFi, your home ISP, random hackers – they could peek at all your unprotected communications. That‘s an unacceptable security risk!

Encryption solves this by scrambling messages so only you and the intended recipient can decipher them. The websites you visit can encrypt data through special protocols which provide authentication and enhanced security guarantees compared to open traffic.

This prevents prying eyes from spying on your sensitive web activity. Phew!

Over the decades, several encryption protocols emerged aiming to secure web traffic without disrupting compatibility across internet infrastructure. Let‘s compare two of the biggest names…

The Origins of SSL – Netscape‘s Web Security Breakthrough

Transport encryption began moving into the mainstream in 1995 when Netscape introduced Secure Sockets Layer (SSL). Developed by legendary cryptographer Taher Elgamal, SSL secured sensitive data as it transferred between Netscape‘s servers and end user browsers.

SSL executed this through a combination of:

  • Encryption algorithms – to scramble transmitted data
  • Digital certificates – to verify server identities
  • Message authentication codes – to confirm data integrity

Suddenly, online credit card payments and other confidential transactions became possible at scale! E-commerce boomed thanks to SSL. Though early versions held flaws, by SSL 3.0 in 1996 the protocol successfully met market security demands.

"HTTPS" connections allowing HTTP traffic shielded by SSL certificates became commonplace across sites dealing with finance, healthcare, government services and more.

But some drawbacks lurked beneath…

Transitioning to an Open Standard – The Rise of TLS

While innovative, SSL remained closely tied to Netscape commercial products not everyone had access to. The academic Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) wanted to standardize web encryption through an open protocol available for anyone to implement.

So in 1999, the IETF introduced Transport Layer Security (TLS) based heavily on the most recent SSL implementation at the time – SSL 3.0.

However, TLS shed proprietary elements and patents associated with Netscape‘s product roster to become an accessible standard. TLS version 1.0 kickstarted an open source evolutionary track enabling stronger, faster encryption accommodating forthcoming technological shifts.

Let‘s visually compare some main divergences as TLS stacks up today against aging SSL standards:

Protocol VersionSSL 3.0TLS 1.0TLS 1.1TLS 1.2TLS 1.3
Release Year19961999200620082018
Known VulnerabilitiesManySomeFewVery FewNone Yet

Notice TLS‘s heightened security and speed with each iteration thanks to updated encryption capabilities and modular structure. More flexible than SSL‘s dated blueprint, TLS continues adapting to new eavesdropping threats.

Meanwhile outdated SSL 3.0 lingers vulnerable…

Should I Use SSL or TLS?

Given TLS‘s open source nature, ongoing development, and modern cryptographic techniques substantially improving on 1990s SSL – the choice becomes clear.

Prominent security experts overwhelmingly recommend TLS rather than SSL for transport encryption today. Since 2015, SSL has been completely deprecated as insecure in all modern web standards.

Let‘s examine why TLS takes the crown as the definitive technology securing web communications going forward…

TLS 1.3 – The New Gold Standard for Encryption

In 2018, TLS 1.3 launched with rearchitected encrypted handshake flows, improved brute force protections, and future-proof mechanisms facilitating easy upgrades.

"While already very secure, TLS 1.2 still had some weaknesses that TLS 1.3 fixes," explained security researcher April King. "Mandatory configuration profiles cut down risks of misconfiguration. Extra key layers help sidestep compromise of private keys. I can comfortably call TLS 1.3 the new baseline standard for security"

Today TLS 1.3 handles encryption for approximately 30% of websites globally, with usage rapidly increasing.

Meanwhile 99% of browsers block the SSL label altogether, warning visitors of potential insecurities before allowing page access. Sites stubbornly maintaining antiquated 1990s SSL infrastructure now face blocked traffic and consumer distrust until migrating to modern cipher suites under the TLS banner moving forward.

The Persistence of the "SSL" Misnomer

If the SSL acronym ties to demonstrably hazardous encryption weaknesses, why do people continue referencing it?

The answer lies in lingering technical ambiguity and market inertia. Through the late 1990s and 2000s, "SSL" became shorthand for any form of website security. Encryption protocols were considered obscure externalities. Calling a site "SSL-secured" sufficiently signaled visitors should trust it was safely encrypted by some means – whether early TLS iterations, SSL itself, or related certificate technology.

But as computing professionals came to distinguish SSL‘s explicit technical meaning separate from the umbrella notion of "website encryption" over time, this imprecision muddled public understanding.

Laypeople heard blanket statements that "SSL was deprecated." But having conflated "SSL" with "encrypted web traffic" for years, many figured TLS-enabled security still depended directly on SSL foundations rather than recognizing TLS as a wholly distinct, massively improved open protocol.

Nonetheless, for accurate discussions moving forward, it‘s vital to avoid this muddy shorthand implying website encryption today builds off SSL technology. TLS has fully superseded SSL with optimized, open implementations bearing no ties to Netscape‘s proprietary relic of the past.

Website Encryption – Now and Going Forward

TLS‘s ascent as a refined, adaptable encryption protocol continues trending up over the last 20+ years while SSL wanes obsolete. By fully replacing outdated SSL implementations with the latest TLS versions across global infrastructure, we collectively uphold robust privacy standards through ever-evolving digital landscapes.

Up next on the roadmap, the IETF hopes to integrate post-quantum computing cryptographic support within TLS to maintain long-term security – though such capabilities may still be 5-10 years away.

But quantum-safe mechanisms aside, prioritizing migration of technology like healthcare networks, financial platforms and government systems away from 1990s SSL to existing mass-compatible TLS protocols offers tremendous security ROI now.

As Bruce Schneier fittingly stated in his latest Cryptogram newsletter:

"If you haven‘t upgraded from SSL to TLS, do it immediately. If you‘re still using TLS 1.0 or 1.1, upgrade to TLS 1.2 or 1.3…Discontinuing obsolete cryptography is the easiest method to improve security."

So in summary, I hope this guide helped elucidate distinctions in the transport layer encryption space! Let‘s keep modernizing solutions to lock down data, while also tightening up language to emphasize standards living up to modern code review, not vestiges of the past.

Now go check whether your favorite sites run TLS 1.3 using tools like SSL Labs Server Test! Stay safe out there as you surf.

Did you like those interesting facts?

Click on smiley face to rate it!

Average rating 0 / 5. Vote count: 0

No votes so far! Be the first to rate this post.

      Interesting Facts
      Login/Register access is temporary disabled