What Is Transport Layer Security and How Does It Work?

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Oberlo reports that 4.95 billion people worldwide use the Internet in 2022. This year’s statistics reveal a 6.2 percent increase, the fastest year-over-year growth rate since 2019. It’s clear that more individuals and businesses will continue to use the Internet for work, school, and personal needs. Since online use frequently involves the exchange of sensitive data, it’s imperative for security measures to be in place to protect and secure this information from cyberattacks like breaches, identity theft, and fraud. This article will discuss one particular security protocol known as Transport Layer Security (TLS), such as what it is, how this protocol works, and how it compares to Secure Socket Layer (SSL). 

Transport Layer Security Definition 

In 1999, the international standards organization known as the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) published the first Transport Layer Security (TLS). TLS is a widely used security protocol that encrypts data sent over the Internet. Indeed, TLS helps maintain data security and privacy for online communication.  

Common examples of how TLS is used: 

  • Encrypting communications between web applications and servers like a web browser loading a website (e.g., Chrome loading TokenEx.com on a user’s PC). 
  • Encrypting communications, including email, instant messaging, video, and voice-over IP (VoIP). 
  • Encrypting file transfers, as well as internet services like DNS and NTP 

As for users, the most common example of TLS is seeing the security padlock icon on websites. This icon indicates that a secure session has been established, which gives people peace of mind that it’s safe to share their information with a website, such as by filling out a contact form or making a purchase.   

TLS plays a crucial role in ensuring that hackers and third-party companies cannot see what has been transmitted. This is a key point because businesses frequently send and receive sensitive information, including customer contact information, credit card numbers, medical records, passwords, Social Security numbers, etc. Indeed, this security protocol ensures that data is safely delivered to the destination endpoint, which helps avoid potential eavesdropping or tampering with any data. 

Benefits of TLS:

  • Ease of Use – TLS is easy to use because it’s established beneath the application layer, which means most of its operations are not seen by clients (users). 
  • Encryption – TLS uses encryption to send data between applications securely. 
  • Flexibility – TLS uses authentication, encryption, and hashing algorithms to establish a secure session. 
  • Deployment – TLS can securely send data to various applications from Windows Server 2003 operating systems and beyond. 
  • Interoperability – TLS is compatible with the majority of web browsers, including Microsoft Internet Explorer, Chrome, and Microsoft Edge. The Transport Layer Security protocol also works on most operating systems and web servers.  
How Does TLS Work? 

To implement TLS, a website or application must have a TLS certificate downloaded on its origin server or SSL certificate. A certificate authority issues this certificate to an individual or business that owns a specific site domain. The TLS certificate includes vital details about who owns the domain and the server’s public key, which are needed to authenticate a server’s identity.  

Once authenticated, a TLS connection is started via a TLS handshake sequence. When an end-user visits a website using TLS, the TLS handshake is initiated between the user’s device (client device) and the web server. This sequence involves the following steps: 

  • Indicate which TLS version will be used (e.g., TLS 1.2, 1.3, etc.) 
  • Determine which cipher suites will be used 
  • Authenticate the server’s identity via the server’s TLS certificate 
  • Create session keys to encrypt messages between the user’s device and web server after the handshake process is finished 

For each session, the TLS handshake creates a cipher suite, which consists of algorithms indicating which shared encryption or session keys will be used for a session. A public key cryptography sets the matching encryption keys over an unencrypted channel.  

Additionally, TLS handles the authentication process, which involves the server’s identity is confirmed to the client. This process uses public keys, which involve one-way encryption. A user with the public key (part of the TLS certificate) can decipher the encrypted data with the server’s private key and thus, verify its authentication. It’s important to note that only the original sender can encrypt data with a private key. 

After the data has been encrypted and authenticated, the next step is to sign the data with a message authentication code (MAC). The receiver can use the MAC to confirm that the data’s integrity has not been compromised. This code is like a seal on a food package of meat – it gives the customer proof that the item has not been tampered with and is safe to purchase and use.  

Transport Layer Security vs. SSL 

Transport Layer Security is the successor of the Secure Socket Layer (SSL) protocol developed by Netscape in 1994. SSL underwent numerous revisions before unveiling TLS 1.0, published in 1999 as an upgrade of SSL 3.0. The current TLS 1.3 version was launched in 2018.  

As for similarities, TLS and SSL are both used in several applications, including web browsers, email, and messaging apps. However, TLS provides more robust encryption algorithms to authenticate sessions and can be used with pre-shared keys and secure remote passwords.  

As for differences, TLS and SSL protocols are not interoperable, meaning they cannot exchange data between the two layers. Though, TLS has some limited compatibility with older devices that still use SSL. The handshake process is also slightly different for these security protocols. For example, TLS offers more cipher suites and utilizes a hash-based message authentication code (HMAC) for record protocols, rather than MAC used by SSL. 

Bolster Your Data Security with Tokenization 

When it comes to sensitive data, it’s recommended to maintain a holistic security approach consisting of various layers, from encryption to tokenization. In particular, tokenization is an effective security solution to protect sensitive data from theft. This solution involves replacing the original data with randomly generated numbers called tokens that are irreversible and undecipherable. What does this mean for businesses? An organization can protect its customers’ sensitive information from theft while maintaining critical business utility, reducing scope, and having the time to scale its business. Contact TokenEx today to find out if we are a good fit for your business and how we can best help you succeed.