How to Tell if a Website is Secure (or not!)
Have you ever visited a website or app and wondered if it was the correct site or a fake website? It’s easy to put up a small website and have it look just like the legitimate version. Take the customer service portal hosted by Equifax during their massive data privacy breach last month. A programmer bought a domain with the words transposed and quickly hosted a website that looks exactly like the legit version. Even Equifax customer service was fooled and sent customers to it. If it is so easy to clone a website, how can you tell if a website is secure or not?
First, let’s define what makes a website secure. The secure website utilizes a secure certificate. This certificate verifies the ownership of the business and the legitimacy of their server. There are various levels of security and not all secure certificates are the same. For example, a news website that is looking to rank higher in Google searches does not need as robust of a secure certificate as an e-commerce website that transacts online.
Secure certificates have varying level of verifications and escalating costs that are directly proportional to the level of security and reputation of the certificate issuer. SSL (Secure Socket Layer) was the previous version of website security. That means the site is using TLS (Transport Layer Security). The current version of TLS certificates is TLS 1.2 with either 128 or 256-bit encryption.
The address of a website as it is typed into a web browser is referred to as a URL which stands for Uniform Resource Locator.[Figure 1] The first three to five letters of the URL are called the “protocol identifier.” Common protocol identifiers are HTTP, HTTPS, and FTP. A website that is not secure uses HTTP://www.NameOfTheWEbstie.com in the address bar. The secure version of the same website would HTTPS://www.NameOfTheWEbstie.com have the letter “S” in the
In case you didn’t know it, HTTP stands for HyperText Transfer Protocol. Add an S on the end and its HyperText Transfer Protocol Secure. But it’s more than a matter of adding the letter S into the URL string as you type it into Chrome or Firefox. So how do you tell if a website is not secure? When a user visits any website in a browser, look to see if there is the letter in the protocol identifier in the beginning of the URL string, if there is an S as in HTTPS, then you know the website may be secure. If there is no letter S, after the HTTPS, then the website is definitely not secure. IF the site is using HTTPS, then you’ll need to inspect the certificate to make sure it is still valid. If you are worried about whether a site is a phishing site or not, then you’ll want to verify that the certificate is issued by a name you can trust like Comodo, Verisign, or Thawte to name a few.
To look at the certificate and its level of security, go to the URL in a web browser. In the Chrome browser, the address bar will have a padlock icon. Tapping on the padlock will show a message that the site is indeed secure. Using a better browser like Firefox, it is easy to inspect the secure certificate and get more information about the encryption and the issuer. From Firefox, tap the information ‘I” icon next to the padlock. This will pop up a dialogue where readers can inspect the certificate. Look and see ofithe expiration date is still valid. Also, check that the owner name is indeed the name of the website you visited. You may also want to check the encryption level if
Michelle writes about cyber security as well as how to protect your data online. She has worked in internet technology for over 20 years Michelle earned a B.S. in Engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She published a guide to Cyber Security for Business Travelers