SSL Explained in Plain English

SSL is software that encrypts some of your internet traffic. Not everything that you do on the internet is private. For example, if you go to a newspaper site and just read the news, then it isn’t terribly important for those pages to be encrypted as they are sent to your computer. But when you log into your bank’s website, it is critical that your traffic be encrypted so that nobody can intercept your account number and password.

When you logon to your bank’s website, your traffic travels through your ISP’s network. If your bank is not a customer of the same ISP, your data will travel through at least one more ISP’s network, and often a few other networks. So there are many opportunities for criminals to “sniff” your traffic. If you are connected to the internet with a wireless connection, then your account info is literally floating around in the air where people nearby can receive it.

But once encrypted with SSL, it does no good for anybody to intercept your traffic because they will not be able to decipher your data. The system is designed such that only your bank will be able to decode your packets and conduct business with you.

Encrypting and decrypting data takes additional computer power. So, most of the time as you surf the web, none of your traffic is encrypted until you go to a website where money is involved such as your bank, broker, or credit card company.

SSL and VPNs

However, computers are a lot more powerful than they were when the web reached the masses in the 1990s. And now it is possible to encrypt all of your traffic without noticing things slowing down. This is accomplished by using SSL, or the newer TLS, to implement a “virtual private network” or VPN.

SSL and Usenet

Just about all Usenet companies now offer SSL connections so that their customers can download files with privacy. You need a newsreader program like SuperNZB that supports SSL. And you can see the difference by sniffing your own packets.

How to Sniff Your Packets

On Windows, you can use Microsoft Network Monitor to look at your network traffic. For example, if you were downloading files with SuperNZB and had SSL turned off, you would see, here and there, plain-text going by with such things as the subject headers of posts like: “My Vacation Video.avi”. But if you turn on your VPN, or turn on SSL and start downloading again, you won’t see anything that you can read. It will all look scrambled. That’s SSL in action.

Note: for technical information, see the Wikipedia TLS/SSL page.