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July 20, 2019 | 9:16pm
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What’s the ‘lock’ icon on your browser and why should you care

Have you ever noticed a “Locked” symbol on your browser?

All current browsers indicate when a web site you are viewing is secured. Here’s an example of the locked site indicator in the Firefox browser.

In short, if you don’t see the padlock icon, the website you are viewing is not secure.

But what does that mean? Is it important to you? The answers are simply, yes. It is important especially when you are accessing the internet via a public WiFi like is found in a coffee shop or the library.

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All up-to-date browsers, Chrome, Firefox, Safari, Opera, etc. have a similar indicator. If your browser doesn’t, you should upgrade or switch browsers. Keeping your browser updated is important because viewing and interacting with websites is one of the times you are vulnerable to outside attacks on your computer. Developers are continually finding browser security flaws and fixing them. You must keep up to be safe.

Thirty years ago, when the Internet was young, computer engineers did not worry about snooping or impersonating on the Internet. We assumed that anyone who could connect online was honest and well-meaning. That was naïve, but that’s how it was.

When we wised up, we developed a more secure methods. Two parts were added: encryption and certification. Encryption makes it difficult to read private data. Certification make sure that you are communicating with your bank and not some pirate boiler room in a foreign country. Encryption can be broken, and certificates can be counterfeited but the secure communication is still much safer.

However, security was expensive in the days when computers and networks were a thousand times slower than they are today. Secure browsing did not replace insecure browsing because secure browsing bogged down the computers and networks it ran on. So, the engineers compromised. Most communication over the Internet, especially in the early days, did not need to be private. No one cared if someone snooped on them while reading stock market quotes on Yahoo. Few monetary transactions were executed over public networks. The compromise was to keep both the insecure and secure methods active and only use secure communications when absolutely necessary.

In the 1990s, Amazon, for example, only used secure communication when transmitting passwords and payment information. While browsing the catalog, communication was wide open and insecure. If you had looked carefully, you might have noticed that the web address was sometimes “http://amazon.com” (insecure) and sometimes “https://amazon.com” (secure) but most people didn’t care.

A lot has changed. Sites like Amazon no longer use any unlocked communications.

Today, most financial transactions have some online elements and collecting data on people’s habits has become big business. Computer and network performance has improved to the point that the difference between secure and insecure is measured in thousandths of a second instead of minutes. In today’s environment, data is the new cash crop. All data, even a catalog page, is worth encrypting. Hence, the computer industry urges everyone to make life hard for the criminals and always use secure communication.

Many web sites still use insecure communications, but the number is dwindling fast. Google has warned that they may soon stop returning insecure sites in their searches. An unlocked indicator is now a sign that a web site may be dangerous. Hackers don’t want to take the trouble or leave clues for law enforcement by setting up secure communications.

For myself, when I stumble onto a site that does not display the locked symbol, I am careful. Sometimes a site is legitimate but behind the times. However, if I have suspicions, I immediately disconnect from the network and run a virus scan to be sure my computer has not picked up something nasty. I may be over cautious, but I have too much experience with what happens when you are not careful.

When you are on public WiFi, like a coffee shop, a hotel, or the public library, you should be especially careful. It is ridiculously easy for anyone else connected to a public local network to snoop in on any communication that does not show the locked indicator on your browser. This is also why you should put a long and difficult password on your personal WiFi network at home.


If you have questions about computing, post them in a comment below and I’ll try to answer them. Or come in to the Ferndale Public Library on the 1st and 3rd Wednesdays each month at 3 pm and ask me face to face.

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