TLS (Transport Layer Security) and SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) are protocols designed by Netscape that provide data encryption and authentication between different applications and servers for data exchange over an insecure network. These are often misunderstood and referenced in conjunction with one another but – fun fact – SSL 3.0 is actually the predecessor of TLS 1.0, which has lead to some calling it SSL 3.1. This even carries over to the VPN world because the popular OpenVPN and SSTP protocols use TLS for exchanging keys and authentication. The other kind of software is called SSL VPN, which basically acts as a secure web browser that does not require a pre-installed client (unlike normal VPNs) with the traffic being encrypted using SSL or TLS protocols instead of the standard IPSec-protected VPNs.
Secure Sockets Layer is the standard security technology for establishing an encrypted link between a web server and a browser, ensuring that your data successfully passes between the web servers while keeping browsers private. SSL is used by most websites for the protection of its customers’ online transactions. You may recognize this from those times you have visited a website and a message pops up informing you that there was an issue with web page’s SSL certificate. The reason behind these situations is that a typical SSL certificate contains the company’s domain name, full name, address, city and country alongside the expiration date of the certificate. Whenever any of these checks fail your browser will show you this error message, warning that the website you want to connect to is not secured by SSL.
However, nowadays SSL is being disabled on websites around the world since SSL 3.0 is now completely insecure ever since it became older and its components are outdated, meaning it’s now unable to properly protect from virtual troublemakers. The U.S. government has specifically warned everyone to not use this protocol for sensitive communication.
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Transport Layer Security is the newer and natural evolution of SSL 3.0. The following versions of this kind of technology – such as TLS 1.1 and 1.2 – are now considerably safer since the majority of previous vulnerabilities have been fixed. This makes the newer versions of TLS, if accurately configured, impenetrable to dangerous attacks since it features strong ciphers and encryption methods. However, many websites up until this day still don’t support nor use the newer and stronger versions of the TLS protocol, therefore utilizing weaker and more vulnerable encryption ciphers.
Fortunately, many VPN providers have learned about the issues coming from the weaknesses of SSL 3.0 and TLS 1.0, and have updated their services to include the newer TLS protection used by the various protocols, such as OpenVPN and SSTP.
Also, TLS 1.3 is currently in a working draft form, though the details are provisional and incomplete. However, it is expected to become a natural evolution of the previous versions by providing extra security features, such as new ciphers, digital signatures algorithms and key exchange protocols.
SSL vs TLS
With all this being said, it should be obvious that you should opt for the newer and stronger version – currently TLS 1.2 – because this is the protocol that guarantees the highest security. If you’d like to configure a server or messaging software, this choice has key implications. TLS technology will protect your information from attackers and malicious eavesdroppers that may invade your network. Once TLS v1.3 has a stable and finished version, online security will reach even greater heights and maybe people will wise up to the seriously outdated and easily breakable SSL 3.0. But for now, you should always look for stronger ciphers and excellent security certificates.
The same happens when choosing a VPN. Nowadays most providers already feature the latest protection – since VPNs are meant to be used as a security and anonymity tool – so you won't have to dig too deep. You’ll want to find a VPN that assures certain protocols are available, such as OpenVPN, SSTP, or more uncommon ones like SoftEther.