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HTTPS and the illusion of privacy

With the rise of per-website encryption, and the ease at which it now comes, we begin to expect new sites, and popular sites, to adopt this added security. But what does it buy us? Don’t be misled into thinking your browsing is private.

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Firefox presents this comforting green lock when it’s using HTTPS for a web page. If you take anything away from this, let it be that this does not mean your browsing is private.

Security does not mean privacy.

What to keep in mind

When browsing a website which uses HTTPS, anyone viewing your traffic (such as your ISP, someone on your network, or even other processes on your computer) will be able to tell not only which website you’re viewing, but for how long and how frequently. Though the content between you and the website is encrypted, the fact that you’re connected to the website’s IP is to be considered public knowledge.

Furthermore, even if a website is using HTTPS, by using it, you give it your absolute trust. For example, your favorite search engine likely forces HTTPS. That’s good, since it makes it difficult for others to sniff out what you’re searching, even though they can tell that you’re searching. Alas, it doesn’t change the fact that your favorite search engine knows exactly what you searched and who you are. What it does with that data, such as passing it onto sites you visit, would then be entirely out of your hands.

The green lock doesn’t mean you’re safe.

So, is HTTPS worth it?

HTTPS adds a layer of TLS encryption atop the age-old HTTP communications we use while browsing. It succeeds in making MITM attacks more difficult and protecting the data in transmission from tampering. Yes, HTTPS is absolutely worth it.

Without encryption, all of your web browsing is to be considered public knowledge.

What you can do

Most importantly, understand the implications of using a website, HTTPS or otherwise: anytime you submit data to any site, you trust that site with the data permanently.

As soon as data has been shared, you can never take it back.

To help with using HTTPS more often, consider the HTTPS Everywhere plugin. You might also consider Privacy Badger and μblock Origin. Once you understand that every website you browse through HTTPS still knows who you are, if you want to make that more difficult, you might consider using an anonymizer like Tor.

Why you should care

“Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.” ~Snowden


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