TLS: An Examination Into the Security of the Internet, Part 1

TLS, more often referred to as SSL, is the means by which a secure connection is established over a computer network. Most often these connections are established over the Internet, between a client (ex., web browser) and a server (ex., a web site). In the specific case of web sites, HTTP is layered on TLS/SSL to ensure a secure and private connection; HTTPS is not a separate protocol, rather a combination or protocols. Establishing a secure connection thus requires a few steps:

Step 1: Establish an TCP connection

TCP is a transport-layer protocol that establishes a connection which is reliable and fault-tolerant. As opposed to UDP, TCP will seek to verify that information is transferred successfully and as intended. This is important for the next step. The connection is established as follows:

  1. A client will contact a server and announce it wishes to establish a connection. (Called a SYN, short for synchronize). This SYN is a number, stored as part of the TCP header; we'll call it A.
  2. The server will respond to the client announcing it has received the client's wish, and also state that it wishes to establish a connection. (Called a SYN-ACK, short for synchronize-acknowledge). Ths SYN-ACK is actually two values: One is the ACK value, A+1. The second is the server's SYN value, which we'll call B.
  3. The client then acknowledged the server's wish, thus establishing a connection (Called simply an ACK). Because it was expecting an ACK value in step 2, and expecting that value to be A+1, it can verify that this connection is the same as the one it started. Additionally and similarly, the ACK which gets returned to the server as B+1.
  4. At this point, the connection is established. Both client and server have assured themselves of a proper connection thanks to the three-way handshake described above. From this point forward, the server has bound a specific port to listen for any further communications with the client.

Step 2: Establish an SSL/TLS Connection

TLS, Transport Layer Security, is appropriately on the same layer as TCP, the transport layer. TLS relies on public key authentication to establish a secure connection between the aforementioned client and server. The connection is established as follows:

  1. A client will announce to the server it wishes to establish a TLS/SSL connection. It will include information such as it's TLS/SSL version, the ciphersuites it wishes to use, and which compression methods it wishes to use.
  2. The server then uses the highest possible TLS/SSL version, chooses one of the ciphersuites available to the client, chooses one of the compression methods available to the client, and sends it's certificate. A certificate is basically a container for a server's public key, but with many additional details, and often signed by a certificate authority, to further verify the certificate contains the proper key. More on certificates in part 2.
  3. The client then uses the server's public key to encrypt a secret. This secret is then sent back to the server.
  4. The server decrypts the secret with it's private key. This secret is now shared by only the client and the server, and from this point on is used for symmetric encryption.

From this point forward, the connection is encrypted and secure from external threats. Of course, this all depends on a trusted certificate and proper encryption algorithms.

Step 3: Establish an HTTP connection

HTTP is an application-layer protocol, and is responsible for translating the information from the transport layer into information used by an application. Your web browser, for example, will utilize HTTP to translate a bunch of hexidecimal information into alpha-numeric information, which is then formatted and presented to you as a web page. Security is previously established thanks to TLS/SSL, and reliability is previously established thanks to TCP.

Part 2 focuses more on the specifics of TLS: certificates, cipher suites, and public key authentication.


  1. Wikipedia: Public-key Cryptography
  2. Stack Exchange: How is it possible that people observing an HTTPS connection being established wouldn't know how to decrypt it?
  3. Stack Exchange: How Does SSL/TLS work?

[Bill Niblock][2015-05-06][Technology]