What is HTTPS and why does Google like it so much?

HTTPS to the rescue.
HTTPS to the rescue.
Image: Reuters/Pawel Kopczynski
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Google has announced it will give sites using encryption a higher rank in its search algorithms. Particularly, it singled out HTTPS, which it characterizes as “industry-leading security.”

It’s easy to tell if a site is using the system: A URL that starts https:// instead of http:// is using it. HTTPS, which stands for Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure, makes it more difficult for hackers, the NSA, and others to track users. The protocol makes sure the data isn’t being transmitted in plain-text format, which is much easier to eavesdrop on.

What’s more, it piggybacks on the more-familiar HTTP, and most browsers support it. It’s particularly important for use in public wireless networks, where bad actors can easily discover sensitive information by “packet sniffing”—programs that can see all the information transmitted over an unencrypted network.

HTTPS is already the default for Google sites, which scrambles data as it travels from Google’s servers to the user’s computer. It was introduced as the default for Gmail, its webmail service, in 2011. The change in algorithm gives leverage to a speech a few months ago, in which Pierre Far, a trends analyst, and Ilya Grigorik, a developer advocate, called for HTTPS everywhere. So far, only about 25% of the web uses the protocol.

“All communication should be secure by default,” Far said in the video.

Why? Well, all of the metadata from websites, when combined, compromise users’ privacy. In September 2013, top-secret documents leaked by Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA was storing gathered metadata on US citizens in order to create profiles of people, tracking their known associates, preferences, and even locations at certain times. In May, the former head of the NSA, Michael Hayden, admitted that government-collected metadata had been used to kill people—though he denied that the collection of data on Americans was used that way.

HTTPS isn’t foolproof, though. If the certificates—a way for websites to confirm that they are who they say they are—are compromised, bad actors still have access to your data. The Heartbleed bug targeted a vulnerability in these security certificates and compromised about 500,000 websites.

For now, Google is using HTTPS as “very lightweight signal—affecting fewer than 1% of global queries, and carrying less weight than other signals such as high-quality content.” That will likely change in the future, Google said. “We’d like to encourage all website owners to switch from HTTP to HTTPS to keep everyone safe on the web,” the company said in its blog post.

To encourage its adoption, Google will be publishing its best practices in the days to come. With Google’s oomph behind it, HTTPS may be powering the web of the future.