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What is an SSL Cipher?

By Troy Holmes
Updated May 16, 2024
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Most computers today have access to the Internet. Secure Socket Layer (SSL) is a cryptographic security measure that protects sensitive data on the Internet. A SSL cipher is an encryption algorithm that creates a special certificate, which is used as a key between two computers on the Internet. This certificate creates a secret encrypted connection between the two networked computers, which blocks unwanted snooping of shared data.

Secure socket layer was originally developed by Netscape™ as a secure protocol for e-commerce activities on the Internet. The SSL is not visible to most Internet users but occurs when logging into a website with a hypertext transfer protocol secure (HTTPS) address. Some web browsers alert the user when she is entering a secure website. This message is an indication of SSL ciphering in action.

Data encryption is the process of converting plain-text data into secret ciphered codes. Once the data is encrypted, it is impossible to understand because it is a scrambled representation of the original text. The SSL cipher is a cryptographic function that uses encryption keys to create a ciphered message. The encryption keys vary in sizes and complexity. Larger bit keys offer a greater level of security.

There are multiple forms of SSL cipher algorithms available. These can support either the data encryption standard (DES) or the advanced data encryption standard (AES). The standards of AES are considered more difficult to decipher because they use larger encryption keys.

Data cryptography standards are managed by the United States Federal government through the National Institute of Technology Standards (NIST). This is the agency that manages and publishes the standards used by encryption algorithms. Currently, AES is considered the gold standard for data encryption because it supports a 256-bit encryption key.

SSL is a unique security protocol because it is based on the transport layer of computers. Typically computers are connected to the Internet through telecommunication devices. With SSL, entire segments of the network telecommunication link are encrypted. This end-to-end encryption process is an encrypted tunnel between two computers. Deciphering the tunnel requires the SSL cipher code and the encryption keys.

The advanced form of SSL cipher is only available on newer versions of operating systems and web browsers. This is because older versions of web browsers were based on the standards of DES and do not support large encryption keys. Windows® 2000 operating systems require service pack two for advanced SSL ciphering.

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Discussion Comments

By MaPa — On Jun 29, 2011

What I find interesting is that even places online that you would not usually think of as a secure site, like Facebook, now have the option to connect through SSL to help keep people from seeing your traffic.

Turns out, it isn't just the data like passwords and card numbers that Internet criminals are looking for. They want to know about people's likes and dislikes, who their friends and relatives are. With that, they can often figure out how to pose as you and get into all kinds of places with your info. Scary stuff.

By Viktor13 — On Jun 28, 2011

@bigjim - I know what you mean. I remember the early days online, it seems like you were reading about a new scam every day. You still hear about them now, but at least there are some good, solid steps you can take to avoid being a victim.

I always joke with my wife, what did we ever do before the Internet? How did anything ever get done? I honestly do not remember. Okay, I actually do remember, but I'm trying to block it out.

By bigjim — On Jun 28, 2011

The SSL protocol was really the beginning of the Internet being really useful for people.

I remember when online stores and things came into being, people were really nervous to enter their information into the computer, often with good reason. But when 128-bit, and then 256-bit SSL encryption came along, it got a lot safer to do your business online.

Now, I do my banking, credit cards, half of my school work, and a bunch of other things on the computer every day, and even on my phone. That wouldn't have been possible even a few years ago, but I'm loving it now.

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