How The Internet Works

We use the internet every day, but how many of us actually know how it works? The complicated “World Wide Web” is built on a series of universal truths and technology, and knowing how it works will help you improve your information security.  If you are up for learning a little bit more, you’ll be able to better protect yourself and your family.

To begin with, every device has an Internet Protocol (IP) address. IP addresses work like home addresses and allow computers to find and send messages to each other. In the same way that you write an address on a letter to mail it to the correct place, computers write IP addresses on the messages they send to ensure the correct computer will receive them. Just like delivery services have fleets of trucks, planes, and people, the Internet has a framework of computers that direct your message to its destination.

But the important thing to know about IP addresses, assigned to devices within a network, is that they trace and locate your online activity. Authorities use IP addresses to trace people just like they can with phone calls, and cybercriminals can also manipulate IP addresses to hide who they are or where they're located.

Another important facet of the internet structure is the Domain Name Service (DNS). DNS is like a giant phonebook for the Internet. Your computer doesn't know how to find Facebook.com on its own. To get to Facebook, your computer asks DNS what the IP address for Facebook.com is. Then your computer and Facebook can start sending things back and forth. Facebook.com, twitter.com, and asu.edu are all domains that can be looked up in the DNS "phone book."

How this all connects to information security is especially relevant when it comes to HTTP. You may notice many sites’ URLs, especially ones where you log in or make confidential transactions like purchases or bank activity, are fronted by https:// instead of http://. HTTPS stands for HTTP Secure, and as you might imagine, it’s a version of HTTP that allows for secure transfer of information over the internet. It’s clear to see if a site is using HTTPS, so if you are on a banking site or any kind of site that requires log in or personal information, make sure it is secured by HTTPS.

Furthermore, most major web browsers have security-conscious features that can alert you to the security of certain sites beyond HTTPS. Browsers like Google Chrome, Firefox, and Safari maintain lists of sites considered trustworthy, based on the site’s security certificate filed (or not) with a third-party Certificate Authority (CA). Certificate Authorities can be companies like GoDaddy, Microsoft, or other domain hosts. If your browser warns you that a site’s security certificate is not up-to-date, be cautious of proceeding on that web page, if you do at all. Sometimes strange technical issues can affect even sites you know and trust, but otherwise, it’s safer to find another site that can offer you the same services or information.

Obviously the internet is much more complicated than this fairly simple explanation, but hopefully the broad information can allow you to browse the internet a little bit more safely. For more information, read here.

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