Free and easy security certificates – what a dream come true for webmasters and lovers of privacy! Let’s Encrypt was announced this week (but won’t be ready to use until the second quarter of 2015) “a free, automated, and open certificate authority (CA), run for the public’s benefit.” It’s the product of years of work from engineers at Mozilla, Cisco, Akamai, Electronic Frontier Foundation, IdenTrust, and researchers at the University of Michigan.
To be clear a fully-encrypted web would not be foolproof against attacks. But it would seriously impede dragnet internet surveillance from working, forcing spy agencies to target specific websites for attack (and risk getting caught) rather than silently gathering it all up without anyone having any way of knowing. And attacks against HTTPS are out-of-reach for most hackers that can’t send legal orders to certificate authorities—making all internet users safer.
Since the advent of what used to be known as the World Wide Web, it has been a relatively simple matter for network attackers—whether it’s the NSA, Chinese intelligence, your employer, your university, abusive partners, or teenage hackers on the same public WiFi as you—to spy on almost everything you do online.
HTTPS, the technology that encrypts traffic between browsers and websites, fixes this problem—anyone listening in on that stream of data between you and, say, your Gmail window or bank’s web site would get nothing but useless random characters—but is woefully under-used. The ambitious new non-profit Let’s Encrypt aims to make the process of deploying HTTPS not only fast, simple, and free, but completely automatic. If it succeeds, the project will render vast regions of the internet invisible to prying eyes.
Why does it matter if the web is encrypted?
The benefits of using HTTPS are obvious when you think about protecting secret information you send over the internet, like passwords and credit card numbers. It also helps protect information like what you search for in Google, what articles you read, what prescription medicine you take, and messages you send to colleagues, friends, and family from being monitored by hackers or authorities.
But there are less obvious benefits as well. Websites that don’t use HTTPS are vulnerable to “session hijacking,” where attackers can take over your account even if they don’t know your password. When you download software without encryption, sophisticated attackers can secretly replace the download with malware that hacks your computer as soon as you try installing it.
Encryption also prevents attackers from tampering with or impersonating legitimate websites. For example, the Chinese government censors specific pages on Wikipedia, the FBI impersonated The Seattle Times to get a suspect to click on a malicious link, and Verizon and AT&T injected tracking tokens into mobile traffic without user consent. HTTPS goes a long way in preventing these sorts of attacks.
And of course there’s the NSA, which relies on the limited adoption of HTTPS to continue to spy on the entire internet with impunity. If companies want to do one thing to meaningfully protect their customers from surveillance, it should be enabling encryption on their websites by default.
Here is demo of the New, Easy Let’s Encrypt