Understanding Internet Security

How secure is the data that you transmit on the Internet? How vulnerable is your personal data to hackers? Even computer-literate, experienced programmers find it's hard to answer these questions with certainty. You probably know that standard encryption algorithms are used to protect data — you've likely heard of public-key algorithms such as RSA and DSA — and you may know that the U.S. government's Data Encryption Standard has been replaced by an Advanced Encryption Standard. Everybody knows about the lock icon in their browsers that indicates that the session is protected by HTTPS. You've most likely heard of PGP for e-mail security (even if you gave up on it after failing to convince your friends to use it).

In all likelihood, though, you've also heard of man in the middle attacks, timing attacks, side-channel attacks, and various other attacks that aim to compromise privacy and security. Anybody with a web browser has been presented with the ominous warning message that "This site's security cannot be trusted — either the certificate has expired, or it was issued by a certificate authority you have chosen not to trust." Every week, you can read about some new zero-day exploit uncovered by security researchers that requires a round of frantic patching. As a professional programmer, you may feel you ought to know exactly what that means — yet trying to decipher these messages and determine whether you should really be worried or not ...

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