Digital Security and Privacy for Human Rights Defenders

2.7 Encryption on the Internet

  • Information that you send or receive on the Internet travels in an open manner.
  • Some websites can help secure this information by creating an encrypted tunnel between themselves and your computer.
  • This tunnel is built automatically, authenticated by you and has distinguishing features.
  • There remains a possibility of intercepting and breaking the security of this system by what is known as a Man-in-the-Middle attack.
  • You must carefully validate the security certificates, presented by the website offering encrypted connections

Methods of encryption have been integrated into various Internet services. Some of them affect us all.
When we log into our email accounts, make purchases online or transfer important information from one place to another, we want to enjoy a good deal of security from surveillance and information theft.
An infrastructure that allows encrypted communication on the Internet is called the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL).
You can see when your Internet browser has entered SSL by two distinguishing features:

https bar
  • The address for the website will begin with https:// (the ‘s’ standing forsecure)
  • A little padlock will appear in the bottom toolbar of your Internet browser

ssl connection

Connecting over SSL to a website

This means that the website you are visiting and your Internet browser have agreed upon an encrypted communications channel. To find out more about the security of this method, we need to have a look at how it works.

SSL Certificates

The SSL system works on the Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) concept. All websites wishing to use SSL encryption must obtain an SSL certificate. Your Internet browser communicates with the webserver and encrypts all information sent between the two points. The strength of the encryption depends on the SSL certificate at the webserver end. The Internet standard at the moment is 128/256 bits, which is strong enough for nearly all instances.
Your Internet browser (we assume it is Internet Explorer & Mozilla Firefox) has a built-in list of trusted SSL Certification Authorities. If you browse to a website that presents you with an SSL certificate, your browser will automatically check whether it was issued by a trusted authority on your list and whether all its details are correct (i.e. they do not arouse suspicion). Each certificate contains at least the following:
  • Owner’s public key Owner’s name or alias
  • Expiration date of the certificate
  • Serial number of the certificate
  • Name of the organization that issued the certificate
  • Digital signature of the organization that issued the certificate
If the authority that issued the certificate is not on your list, or one of the certificate’s details could be a cause for security concern, your browser will issue a warning and will allow you to examine the certificate.
Note: This does not happen automatically if you are using Internet Explorer, in which case you first need to set this option in the program.

Select: Tools > Internet Options
Click: Advanced

Scroll down the list to the ‘Security’ section until you find the entry ‘Warn about invalid certificates’ and make sure this box is ticked.

mie settings

Advanced Internet settings of Internet Explorer


Internet Explorer Certificate Warning


Mozilla Firefox Certificate Warning

Both of these messages refer to the same problem, although they look different in their respective programs. In both cases you have the option of examining the certificate yourself and then deciding whether you wish to accept it or not. If you do not accept it, you will not have access to the website. If you do choose to accept it (‘Accept this certificate permanently’ in Mozilla Firefox), then the certificate and its issuing authority will be added to your trusted list and you will not be asked for approval of this certificate again!

If you need to inspect the certificate, you should be aware of the things to look out for. The main identification feature of the certificate is its fingerprint (sometimes called thumbprint or MD5). It is the verification of this fingerprint that can positively identify the certificate has really been created and issued by the owners of the website you are visiting. To validate its authenticity, you will need to contact the website owner and check the fingerprint with them manually (by phone, fax, Internet chat or in person). Although this may sound quite annoying, it is a necessity of good security, and the next section will explain the vulnerability you expose yourself to if you do not follow this procedure.

certificate info MIE

Internet Explorer Certificate Information

cerficate info

Mozilla Firefox Certificate Information

Secure email

SSL connections have been built into email services on the Internet. This applies to webmail as well as to hosted email. Some webmail accounts offering such security measures free of charge are:

These webmail services allow you to enter your email account and communicate with it on an encrypted connection. Even though this data can still be captured by any filtering or surveillance mechanism, it will be next to impossible to make sense of it or decrypt it. Notice how the address is deliberately written with ‘https:’ in the beginning.

ssl mail
Essentially, this creates a much more private method for reading and writing email. Used with a good password (see Passwords chapter), it will pave the way to securing your Internet communications. Registering one of these email accounts does not differ at all from registering with Yahoo or Hotmail. The reason is that the majority of webmail providers do not offer SSL connections to their clients.

Security Circle

Please note that the recipients of your email may not be using similar security when connecting to their webmail account. As soon as your email hits the recipient’s webmail it becomes prone to the security standards of his/her server. If the recipient connects to his/her webmail using an open (non-encrypted channel), surveillance agents at the ISP or a national gateway will be able to scan and read your message in full.

Encrypting one side of the communications channel

To maintain a higher level of privacy in email communications, both parties must use a secure connection to their webmail server, whatever it may be. If your ambition is simply to ‘escape’ the country where you are sending the email from, and the path taken by your email from the recipient’s webmail server to the recipient’s computer is irrelevant, you may, of course, not pay heed to the example below. Yet, to maintain a closed loop of communication always constitutes a good security practice. The security of this approach can further be improved if both parties use the same SSL webmail service provider (RiseUP, Bluebottle). Email, travelling on the Internet between servers, is usually unencrypted and can easily be intercepted.
allround ssl

All-round SSL encryption in email communications

There is a security consideration when both parties use the same SSL webmail service. It is the webmail server itself that stores and processes all your messages. Even though your connection to the server is encrypted, the email is accessible to those who maintain the server or hack into it. You may wish to research the security and reliability of your webmail provider as well as the country where it is located. This becomes an issue when you consider a country like the United States, where authorities can issue a subpoena to confiscate the server and all information on it. The above-mentioned webmail servers are situated in the following locations:

The ability to protect your information from the provider has been offered by a number of webmail services. The latter not only use a secure channel of access but also encrypt your data on the server. Your webmail account can only be accessed and opened by you. Email sent to the recipients, who have an account with the same provider, can also be encrypted. Such webmail providers offer a higher level of communication security, but usually require a relatively fast internet connection, for every time you access your account, the website automatically installs temporary encryption software on your computer.60 Services, allowing you to register free accounts, are:


The biggest threat to the SSL Certificate model is what is known as a Man-in-the-Middle (MITM) attack. At its most basic, it is an interception of your Internet information stream – your communication with a web server. It can be used specifically to break the otherwise secure SSL model explained above. First of all, the adversary must get physical access to your Internet line. This can be done at the ISP, a national gateway or even a local network. The adversary then tricks you by presenting an alternative certificate (possibly similar to the above) when you try and access your secure webmail account. Only this certificate is not from the webmail provider, but belongs to the adversary. By accepting the certificate, you enter into a connection with your website through the adversary’s server. As you input your information – login details, financial details, witness testimonies – the adversary receives it all without an effort.

The problem is that it is very easy to get you accept a certificate you have yourself presented. People tend to click ‘OK’ without reading the messages. While on a security training course, I saw computer technicians compromise a highly sophisticated encryption system simply by not verifying the presented certificate before accepting it.

An adversary might be motivated to carry out a MITM attack when he cannot read your email and other Internet transactions because you are operating over ‘HTTPs’. He can see you accessing your webmail server, but he cannot see the email you read and write.

When your Internet line has been intercepted and you accept the adversary’s certificate, all your data transmissions during this (and, possibly, future) sessions will go via the adversary’s server. This means all your login details, private email, etc. Another problem is that once you have been successfully attacked, it is very difficult to notice that your connection is being routed through another computer.


Man-in-the-middle. Your communication channel is intercepted and relayed by an adversary.
Both sides are under the impression that their communications continue as normal

Whenever your Internet browser asks you to verify the SSL Certificate, ask yourself two questions:

  1. Is this the first time I am accessing this website from this computer?
  2. Have I checked the validity of the certificate properly?

If the answer to question 1 is ‘no’, then you either did not save the certificate permanently or are facing a Man-in-the-Middle attack. As mentioned earlier, your browser will not ask for your acceptance of a certificate you have previously saved. If you are being asked a second time to accept a certificate to a website whose details should already be in your trusted list, it is probably not the same website.

Note: If you are in an Internet café, you may not be able to verify whether the fingerprint has already been accepted. It is advisable to write down your website’s fingerprint the first time you access it from a secure location and then verify it every time you access it from other locations.

Answer question 2 by inspecting the certificate’s fingerprint and contacting the website owners (best done by telephone or secure email) to verify it. This may take some time and could be frustrating. Unfortunately, such is the structure of the SSL Certificate system on the Internet and the only option we currently have.
There are not that many websites using SSL technology. They include some webmail providers, online shopping and other online finance services. You may only ever be accessing 2 or 3 such websites. Prepare yourself by writing or phoning the operators of these websites and recording their SSL fingerprints. Thus you will be certain of its authenticity when having to review and accept an SSL certificate from their service.

If the adversary manages to successfully trick you, he will receive all the information you’ve input into the website. If it is an email account he has managed to intercept, the adversary will get your login details, and then login to your real webmail himself - a common attack that has claimed many victims on the Internet. It is therefore very important that you understand the procedure of SSL certification and know how to protect yourself.

Such webmail services usually require the presence of the Java VM (compiler) on your computer. See NGO in a Box for more details