Many website owners know they should move their site to HTTPS, but why? Learn about the differences between HTTP and HTTPS
The difference between HTTP And HTTPS is a subtle change in a browser address bar for the average internet user, but vital for the security of their data. Below, we’ll go over what HTTP is, the differences between HTTP and HTTPS, how they’re used today, and future uses.
What is HTTP?
Every URL link that begins with HTTP uses a basic protocol called “hypertext transfer protocol”. This network protocol standard is what allows web browsers and servers to communicate by exchanging data following a Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) connection.
HTTP is what's called “a stateless system”, which means that it enables connection on demand and does not require any type of constant connection. When a user clicks on a link their system sends a request for a connection to a server. As soon as the server responds the data is shown to the user on their web browser. The speed of this connection is determined by the connection between the server and the system.
HTTP is also an "application layer protocol" meaning that it is focused on preserving the clarity of the information traveling through its connections. This makes for a reliable way to connect to servers but opens the door for malicious actors to intercept the data, allowing them to read and modify data during transfer. This is called a "Man-in-the-Middle Attack" and necessitates a secure way to communicate over the internet. That's where the HTTPS protocol comes in.
HTTP vs HTTPS - Why Is It important?
HTTPS protocol is an extension of HTTP. Quite simply, HTTPS is HTTP with encryption. It stands for "Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure" and the main difference is that it is run using Transport Layer Security (TLS) and Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) certificates. It was specifically created to counteract Man-in-the-Middle attack vulnerabilities HTTP faces. HTTPS has several benefits for those that utilize it. It adds a level of data security to the transfer of data between a system and server by thoroughly encrypting it. Additionally, the SSL/TLS process uses SSL certificates to add a level of authentication, letting modern web browsers identify the web server that is being contacted.
SSL certificates identify servers to visitor web browsers and are issued by trusted certificate authorities (CAs) like Sectigo. In order to receive a certificate, someone must prove at a bare minimum that they control the domain name tied to the server. CAs then issue digital certificates that secure the server based on public key infrastructure (PKI), the gold standard for authentication and encryption.
This all prevents hackers from accessing sensitive data being transferred between a web page and browser.
How HTTPS Works
Without HTTPS, any data you enter into the site (such as your username/password, credit card or bank details, any other form submission data, etc.) is sent as unencrypted plaintext and therefore, susceptible to interception or eavesdropping. For this reason, you should always check that a site is using HTTPS before you enter any information, especially if it is an e-commerce site or you are entering any type of financial information.
On a practical level for the average user, not much is different when a connection is upgraded from HTTP to HTTPS. The only real difference is that the header in browsers will display a padlock, indicating that it is a secure HTTPS connection.
Does HTTPS Mean a Website is Safe?
HTTPS means that the identity of the server has been authenticated and that there is a secure connection with data encryption on any transferred information. It is a must for any website or organization that cares about cybersecurity but it is only one part of a larger framework that makes a website safe. HTTPS works not as a firewall that prevents any malicious code from being sent from one to the other but gives an encrypted connection between an authenticated source and the user. Developers take many more steps to ensure the safety of their users.
Which is Faster?
In most ways, HTTP will always be faster than HTTPS. One of the trade-offs of adding additional security to the process is that it takes longer from beginning to end. HTTP does not require SSL certificates, meaning that the additional validation step that ensures a secure connection is removed. The requests require no identity, authentication, or encryption meaning that due to its stateless system design the data is sent over as soon as the request is received.
In contrast, HTTPS connections require an SSL handshake before delivering any data. However, this handshake step adds very little time to communication processes. Although the delay is insignificant and likely not recognized by a user, it can be impacted by several factors including browser caching.
HTTPS Use Today
HTTPS has become ubiquitous in cybersecurity today. Most developers use it for every website, no matter the level of security required for it. This has not been driven just by best practices but forced by many of the largest browsers and operating systems in the world. Having HTTPS in place is a simple way for them to protect their customer's data without shifting any work on the customers themselves. Many developers are happy to implement it as they understand the security risks associated with the less secure version.
Google, SEO & HTTPS
Google has been one of the loudest voices in support of shifting use completely to HTTPS. They believe that every user should be able to expect a certain level of security whenever they visit a website.
In 2014, Google first announced HTTPS as a ranking factor when it comes to organic search results - making it a SEO (search engine optimization) measure. Organizations that have made the switch to HTTPS have consistently seen higher SEO rankings and generate greater overall page views from the search engine vs those that have not switched.
In July 2018, Google Chrome changed its UI in a further step to force developers to switch. It started marking all HTTP sites as not secure. This bright red symbol gives the impression that the site is not safe for the user to browse. Additionally it autofills https:// into the address bar by default, forcing websites to serve the more secure version of their site if possible.
Soon they will be releasing what they call an "HTTPS-first" option that forces a website to display its HTTPS version and display a full-page alert whenever HTTPS is unavailable. For now, it is being billed as a setting for their most security-conscious users but eventually, the organization is thinking of making it the default option.
HTTPS in the Future
HTTPS websites are here now. Any site with sensitive information likely made the switch from plain HTTP years ago and all the others have been making the evolution over time. Eventually, pressures from browsers will force all sites to make the switch and highly resist even showing non-HTTPS sites. However, don't expect HTTPS to be the final answer to data transfer protocols online. HTTPS stands above HTTP today but one day it may be enhanced or replaced by another protocol. Cybersecurity always evolves and advances as new data security issues may arise or limitations are discovered.