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What is HTTPS?

HTTPS (Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure) is a secured version of HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol). HTTP is a protocol used to transfer data across the Web via a client-server (web browser-web server) model. HTTPS encrypts all data that passes between the browser and server using an encryption protocol called Transport Layer Security (TLS), preceded by Secure Sockets Layer (SSL).

This encryption renders data undecipherable until a site owner unlocks it, allowing users to share sensitive data, such as passwords and other personal information, safely and securely over the Internet or a network.

HTTPS can only initiate an encrypted and secure connection after establishing trust between the browser and server. The importance of this trust is highlighted by the subsequent introduction of HTTP Strict Transport Security (HSTS), a web security policy mechanism that renders websites accessible only via secure connections.

HTTPS vs HTTP: What's the Difference?

HTTPS and HTTP are the same protocol. The main difference is that the HTTPS protocol has an added layer of encryption (SSL/TLS). HTTP sites change to HTTPS by gaining an SSL certificate (sometimes called a security or digital certificate). An SSL certificate is a small data file that protects the transfer of sensitive data between the web browser and the web server.

The SSL certificate encrypts this data by making it unreadable during the transmission process. It contains a public key that allows users to send sensitive information from their web browser securely. The domain owner has a private key that decrypts this information once it reaches the server. This public-private key pairing ensures a secure connection.

For a domain to become HTTPS-enabled, it must be issued with an SSL certificate from a trusted Certificate Authority (CA). When a web browser attempts to connect with a server through HTTPS, it checks that the SSL certificate matches the domain name the user is trying to enter through a process called an SSL/TLS handshake. 

The certificate contains a digital signature from the CA to verify that the certificate was issued to the specified domain name. Once the web browser verifies the certificate’s signature to establish trust with the server, the connection becomes secure. All trusted CAs are automatically recognized by browsers.

However, HTTP connections are not secure, especially when made over public Wi-Fi networks. Anyone can easily intercept communications on the network using freely accessible software. As HTTP does not use SSL certificates, any information the web browser transmits to the web server is available in unencrypted plain text. HTTP also cannot verify a domain owner's authenticity as it does not have a validation process.

Why Use HTTPS?

HTTPS is now the preferred protocol for all activity on the Web, as it is the safest way for users to protect sensitive information.

HTTPS is not just crucial for websites that request user information. Aside from information sent directly from users, attackers can also track behavioral and identification data from unsecured connections.

HTTP has benefits to site owners other than data security, including improved web functionality and user experience.

HTTPS establishes trust from website users, allowing them to double-check the domain name against the SSL Certificate. As the protocol encrypts all client-server communications through SSL/TLS authentication, attackers cannot intercept data, meaning users can safely enter their personal information.

Gaining user trust is especially important for online businesses, such as e-commerce stores. Potential customers need assurance that their payment details will not be compromised. Website owners without HTTPS are not only risking their customers' privacy but also their own reputations. Attackers can easily access customer information through unsecured connections. Such a breach could deter users from future transactions with the business due to lost trust.

As HTTPS widely stands as the gold standard protocol, web browsers have been prompt to take note. For example, Google Chrome flags HTTP websites, and Mozilla Firefox now offers "HTTPS-only mode". Google's search engine algorithm also penalizes HTTP websites in its results in favor of HTTPS pages. Site owners can therefore improve their SEO by switching to HTTPS.

The release of HTTP/2 (a revision of the protocol) in 2015 saw browsers further prioritize HTTPS over HTTP. HTTP/2 allows for faster web browsing and improved user experience through a range of new features. Most browsers now only allow the use of HTTP/2 on web pages that use HTTPS. This update forces HTTP site owners to transition if they want to take advantage of these features.

How Can I Tell if a Website Uses HTTPS?

With most browsers now promoting HTTPS connections, it is simple to distinguish between secure and unsecured websites. The easiest way to identify if a website uses HTTP or HTTPS is to check the browser's address bar. HTTP sites use http:// while HTTPS sites use https://.

You should also see a padlock icon to the left of the address bar on HTTPS websites, indicating that the website has a security certificate. Click on the padlock to view more certificate information, such as a confirmation message, the certificate issuer, and its expiration date.

Most major browsers, including Google Chrome, will alert users upon entering an HTTP page with a warning screen or pop-up message. You can also check if a website is secure by using anti-virus software as website security checks are often an included feature.

How Can I Make My Website Secure?

It is essential to secure your website using HTTPS if you ask for sensitive information from users. All reputable organizations understand the importance of website security; you will need to certify your website before linking it with third-party services.

For example, PayPal and other online payment platforms will ask you for a security certificate to use their services. Securing your website also improves credibility among users, as they can rest assured that their personal details will remain private.

To enable HTTPS on your website, you must obtain a security certificate from a Certificate Authority (CA). There are six different certificate types available for you to buy. Each option varies depending on the level of validation you need and the number of domains you have:

  1. Domain Validated (DV) Certificate – Validates that your organization controls the domain before issuing a certificate.
  2. Organisation Validated (OV) Certificate: Validates that you are the site owner and other details, e.g., the domain name, along with its city and country of origin.
  3. Extended Validated (EV) Certificate: Validates your organization's owner/s, location, and legal existence.
  4. Single-name Certificate: Protects a single subdomain/hostname.
  5. Wildcard Certificate: Protects an unlimited number of subdomains for a single domain.
  6. Multi-Domain Certificates: Protects up to 100 domains, subdomains, and public IP addresses.

Once you purchase your chosen certificate from a CA, install it on your server to enable HTTPS. Your connection is now secure.

Is HTTPS Completely Secure?

HTTPS works effectively to secure connections through encryption and authentication. Secured connections use a public-private key pairing to ensure users' data is transferred safely between the browser and server.

HTTPS also requires a digital certificate that confirms the domain name corresponds with its respective owners. Businesses that deal with large amounts of customer data often claim more comprehensive certification to uphold credibility and reliability.

However, web users should still exercise caution when entering any site. Attackers can add redirects to malicious pages or mimic well-known domains to lure unsuspecting users.

Users need to keep vigilant on the Web by double-checking that URLs match with their intended destination. Be mindful of where you enter your password and other personal details. If a payment page looks suspicious, avoid making a transaction. Users can confirm the validity of a website by seeing if it has an up-to-date certificate from a trusted authority. The certificate should accurately identify the website by displaying the correct domain name.

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