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How Internet Encryption Works – The Basics

Everyone, no matter who they are, needs encryption online. It’s not for ‘the bad guys,’ it’s for the good people who are looking to protect their information and keep it private. This can include your banking details, work information, and your personal email. You have the right to privacy, and encryption is how you get it online.

If you want to learn how Internet encryption works, in the most basic form, read on to see how it started, where it is today, and learn a basic understanding of how it functions today.

How Internet encryption works

The most basic thing about Internet encryption that people are familiar with is that little green lock in the left hand side of your browser:

how internet encryption works https

That little green lock means that the site has HTTPS encryption, the most basic type of secure encryption online. Before we go into the particulars of how Internet encryption works, I want you to look for that lock before you do anything that you’d rather have private. The Internet address will also start with HTTPS.

Modern Internet based encryption uses “public-key encryption.” It was first developed back in 1973 by the GCHQ. Now the GCHQ are the ‘good guys,’ they’re like the English CIA, but it’s still kinda dicey as to what they can and can’t decrypt.

Public key Internet encryption functions on the fact that it’s much more difficult to figure out the factors of a given number – the numbers that were multiplied together to produce it – than it is to actually multiply them to make the number.

This means that it’s easier to do the multiplication than it is to figure out what was multiplied. Like if I were to ask you right now what two prime number multiply to give you 517? Can you guess?


It’s 47 x 11. A computer can multiply those numbers easily, but it can’t figure out the numbers to multiply when given the number as easily.

What then makes Internet encryption work, and public key encryption in particular, is generating large and complex numbers that only your computer and the computer or server you’re connecting to knows the answer to. These large and complex numbers are what your browser is actually using when you see that padlock – the number is the padlock. The bigger the number, the stronger the padlock is in theory.

When you link to a website that has that green padlock you both exchange this complex number and its solution. Only you and the other website will know what’s happening over the connection now because only the two of your have the key – the answer to the equation.

how internet encryption works padlockInternet encryption benchmarks

The key to how Internet encryption works in terms of strength comes down to the number of digital bits it uses in generating the number, and the type of encryption used. In the early days on Internet encryption the standard was 40-bit key encoded encryption using RC4 algorithm. Anyone with the knowledge and time could crack that encryption in moments now. The standard today is 256 bits or higher, which should take centuries, or thousands of years, to crack using conventional methods.

Some of the best VPN providers we review use encryption even higher than this, offering you even more protection as you browse the Internet, do online banking, and message naughty things to your significant other. You can learn more about VPN encryption protocols at the link.

Cracking modern Internet encryption

As you have likely heard, the NSA and GCHQ are working hard to snoop into your private information. They’re spending millions, of your tax dollars, to build custom chips that can crack some levels of encryption when given time.

Modern hackers are now trying to use the graphic processing units that make your screen work to crack passwords. Most hacks occur via brute force password hacks than actual cracking of the encryption of the Internet.

This means that instead of trying to crack the padlock they try to convince the Internet that you are them by stealing passwords through guessing it with software. The best software can do around 8 billion guesses per second, cracking passwords of up to 55 characters in length. After reading this you’ll know how Internet encryption works, and know that passwords are now the weak point you need to work on!

Feature image from andrey_I / Shutterstock
Lock by LHF Graphics / Shutterstock