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What is really protected by SSL and TLS?

Saturday, April 8th, 2017

This question came in via Ask Erik:

Hi Erik,

I stumbled upon your blog while trying to learn a little about SSL/TLS in the context of client/server e-mail sessions, i.e. not web mail which I understand to be an HTTP session.  I am just an ordinary user with no special security needs but I find all this news about corporate and government surveillance to be troubling for both philosophical and practical reasons.  In any case my questions is quite simple.

My e-mail client, apple mail, and my e-mail service provider both support SSL so my e-mail exchanges between my computer and the server are encrypted.  I understand that I can’t control what happens with other e-mail servers.  What I am trying to understand is what does it mean to be encrypted?  When an e-mail leaves my computer how much of the message is encrypted?   Are the e-mail headers encrypted including the sender and recipient e-mail addresses.  I would assume so but nobody talks about the details.  What metadata trail does a user leave when using SSL/TLS.  Is it is as simple as the destination and sending IP address with everything else encrypted?  Reading Data and Goliath right now by Bruce Schneider which talks about a lot of this stuff but again doesn’t give quite enough detail.  At the end of the day I am trying to understand how much protection SSL really provides.

SSL (now TLS) protects data as it travels across the Internet. To understand in detail how SSL works, we recommend reading: How does Secure Socket Layer (SSL andTLS) work?  However, looking at how the protocol works can leave answers to some of these fundamental questions a little unclear.  Lets address them one by one.

SSL and TLS Security

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