The internet has become an integral part of our daily lives. We routinely visit websites to shop, bank, learn, work, and connect with others. With so much sensitive information transmitted online, security is a major concern. This brings us to the difference between HTTP and HTTPS and why the latter is substantially more secure.
Brief History of HTTP and HTTPS Protocols
HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol) was created in 1991 as a means for clients and servers to communicate and exchange data over the internet. HTTP works using a request-response model – a web browser client sends a plain text HTTP request to a server, which then responds with the requested resource, also in plain text format.
While functional, HTTP has a major weakness – it does not encrypt data or authenticate websites. This makes it vulnerable to eavesdropping and tampering. To resolve this, Netscape introduced HTTPS in 1994 by adding SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) encryption capabilities to HTTP.
SSL evolved into TLS (Transport Layer Security) encryption through versions 1.0, 1.1, and 1.2. TLS 1.3 was finalized in 2018 with performance improvements. Together, these enhancements led to the secure HTTPS protocol we know today.
How HTTP and HTTPS Handle Communications Differently
With HTTP, clients and servers simply exchange unencrypted plain text requests and responses. There is no authentication to verify the server‘s identity.
HTTPS uses asymmetric encryption powered by public key infrastructure (PKI). The server has a public key visible to everyone and a private key known only to the server. To access a website, the client‘s browser retrieves the server‘s public key to encrypt requests before sending them. The private key at the server decrypts requests. Responses are encrypted with the public key so only the client can decrypt them with their private key.
This secure encrypted channel protects all data in transit between the client and server. HTTPS also provides authentication via digital certificates issued by trusted Certificate Authorities (CAs). The certificate binds the public key to the server‘s domain name and organization identity.
The TLS Handshake Process
The TLS handshake is the process by which a HTTPS connection is established securely between client and server using asymmetric encryption:
- Client requests access to server’s public key and certificate
- Server provides certificate containing public key
- Client verifies certificate signature against trusted CA list
- Client generates symmetric session key and encrypts with server’s public key
- Server decrypts symmetric key with private key for secure communication
This handshake allows both parties to verify each other, negotiate encryption algorithms, and establish encrypted symmetric keys for data transfer.
Types of SSL/TLS Certificates
There are different classes of SSL/TLS certificates that can be used for enabling HTTPS:
Domain Validated (DV) – Simplest and most common. Validates domain ownership only.
Organization Validated (OV) – Verifies domain and business identity. Displays organization info.
Extended Validation (EV) – Highest level of validation. Displays green padlock in browsers.
EV certificates provide the maximum trust and security for sites handling sensitive data.
Key Differences Between HTTP and HTTPS
- Encryption – HTTP communication is completely unencrypted and plain text. HTTPS applies TLS/SSL encryption to all traffic.
- Authentication – HTTP has no authentication mechanism. HTTPS certs validate website/organization identity.
- Data Integrity – HTTP cannot detect tampering of data in transit. Encryption in HTTPS ensures data is intact.
- Security – HTTP connections are vulnerable to eavesdropping, MITM attacks, and forgery. HTTPS prevents this.
Advantages of Using HTTPS Over HTTP
There are several significant benefits of using the more secure HTTPS protocol:
- Privacy – Encryption protects sensitive user info like passwords, emails, credit cards, etc. from cybercriminals.
- Trust – Identity verification provides users confidence they are on the legitimate site and not an imposter.
- Data Security – Encryption and integrity checks shield against MITM attacks, eavesdropping, and malicious injections.
- Compliance – Regulations like HIPAA, PCI DSS require HTTPS to protect user data.
- SEO Rankings – Google and Bing give higher search rankings to HTTPS websites over HTTP.
Growing Trends Towards HTTPS Usage
There are several strong indicators of the growing adoption of HTTPS across the web:
- As per Google Transparency Report, over 90% of web traffic is now encrypted over HTTPS.
- A Statista survey found 79% of websites use HTTPS encryption as of Dec 2022.
- HTTPS usage among the top 1 million websites grew from 40% in Jan 2018 to 87% by Jan 2022 according to Capterra.
- The HTTPArchive site tracks the share of FQDNs (fully qualified domain names) on HTTPS as 68% on mobile and 73% on desktop as of Jan 2023.
Clearly, the majority of websites are now switching to HTTPS as it becomes the de-facto web standard.
Why HTTPS is Becoming Mandatory
There are several key trends pushing websites to adopt HTTPS:
- Browser warnings – Chrome, Firefox and others now mark HTTP sites as "not secure" and unsafe.
- Search engine rankings – Google uses HTTPS as a positive ranking signal. HTTP sites may suffer in SEO.
- New web features – Modern capabilities like geolocation, push notifications, service workers, etc. need HTTPS.
- Best practices – Groups like Mozilla, Google, Internet Society all strongly recommend using HTTPS.
Cost Considerations for HTTPS Implementation
While HTTPS certainly improves security, what are the costs involved?
- Domain validated (DV) TLS certificates can be obtained for free or about $10/year from some CAs.
- Organization validated (OV) certs cost $150 to $399 per year typically.
- Extended validation (EV) certs with maximum trust can cost $500+ per year.
- Certificate maintenance and renewal is required annually for continued security.
Costs are reasonable, especially considering the risks sites take by sticking to insecure HTTP.
Performance Considerations for HTTPS
In the past, HTTPS was considered slower than HTTP. But recent optimizations make HTTPS faster:
- HTTP/2 – Multiplexing and server push improves HTTPS speed.
- TLS 1.3 – Faster handshake and more secure encryption than TLS 1.2.
- ECDSA Certs – Elliptic curve keys optimize HTTPS performance.
- Caching and Compression – Caching static assets and compressing traffic improves performance.
With proper implementation, HTTPS can perform at par or better than HTTP in real-world usage.
Step-by-Step Guide to Migrate a Website from HTTP to HTTPS
Migrating from insecure HTTP to reliable HTTPS requires careful planning and execution. Here is a step-by-step checklist:
- Obtain an SSL certificate from a trusted CA like Digicert, RapidSSL, etc.
- Install the SSL certificate on your web server and configure support for HTTPS traffic.
- Redirect all HTTP traffic to HTTPS using 301 redirects. Update .htaccess file rules if using Apache.
- Change all internal links within the website codebase to use HTTPS URLs instead of HTTP.
- Update external links, images, scripts, and assets to use HTTPS.
- Modify sitemaps and robots.txt to point to HTTPS resources.
- Use canonical tags to tell search engines the HTTPS version is the official site.
- Change paid advertising links, social media pages, bookmarks, etc. to HTTPS.
- Inform users of the switch via announcement on the website.
- Test extensively and monitor traffic to ensure smooth transition to HTTPS.
Top Certificate Authorities for Secure Certificates
Here are some of the top certificate authorities that offer domain validated, organization validated, and extended validation TLS/SSL certificates:
- DigiCert – The world‘s largest commercial CA trusted by major browsers.
- Let‘s Encrypt – Provides free domain validated certs, but no browser UI security indicators.
- GlobalSign – Browser-trusted certificates focused on organization validation.
- Sectigo – Top vendor of SSL certs with extensive verification options.
- GoDaddy – Affordable certificates from this popular domain registrar.
- Comodo – Cost-effective basic SSL certificates to secure sites.
- Entrust – Enterprise-grade digital certificates with strong identity verification.
For maximum assurance, choose reputable CAs like DigiCert or Entrust.
Best Practices for HTTPS Implementations
Here are some tips for optimizing HTTPS configuration:
- Enable HSTS and preload it to enforce HTTPS-only connections.
- Use secure cookies with attributes like Secure and HttpOnly to prevent theft.
- Implement security response headers like Content-Security-Policy, X-XSS-Protection, etc.
- Redirect all HTTP traffic to HTTPS if possible.
- Regularly monitor TLS settings using tools like SSL Labs server test.
- Always use latest TLS version and update old SSL certificates.
- Cache static resources, compress content, and optimize webpages for faster HTTPS speed.
HTTP vs HTTPS – In Summary
|Encrypted||No||Yes (using TLS/SSL)|
|Verifies Identity||No||Yes (via digital certificates)|
|Protects Data Integrity||No||Yes (through encryption)|
|Vulnerable to Eavesdropping||Yes||No|
|Required for Sensitive Data||No||Yes|
|Search Engine Ranking Signal||No||Yes|
|Extra Costs||None||Certificate purchase/renewal|
HTTPS is a significantly more secure extension of HTTP that provides vital encryption, identity verification, and data integrity. There are substantial risks associated with using unencrypted HTTP instead of HTTPS for websites handling user information. Leading technology firms, security experts, and web standards authorities all strongly recommend websites migrate to HTTPS wherever feasible. Although transitioning entails some cost and effort, it is a necessity for any business website seeking to maximize security and trust.