Updated 12/7/2011 with AES security data for the newest browsers and mobile devices.
SSL and TLS are the workhorses that provide the majority of security in the transmission of data over the Internet today. However, most people do not know that the degree of security and privacy inherent in a “secure” connection of this sort can vary from “almost none” to “really really good … good enough for US government TOP SECRET data”. The piece which varies and thus provides the variable level of security is the “cipher” or “encryption technique”. There are a large number of different ciphers — some are very fast and very insecure. Some are slower and very secure. Some weak ones (export-grade ciphers) are around from the days when the USA did not permit the export of decent security to other countries.
AES, the Advanced Encryption Standard, is a relatively new encryption technique/cipher that is the successor of DES. AES was standardized in 2001 after a 5 year review, and is currently one of the most popular algorithms used in symmetric key cryptography (which, for example, is used for the actual data transmission in SSL and TLS). It is also the “gold standard” encryption technique; many security-conscious organizations actually require that their employees use AES-256 (256-bit AES) for all communications.
This article discusses AES, its role in SSL, which web browsers and email programs support it, how you can make sure that you only use 256-bit AES encryption of all secure communications, and more.
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