December 18, 2015
Let's Encrypt, is a certificate authority that offers free digital certificates for websites. It is now issuing them more broadly with the launch of a public beta.
“The beta label will eventually be dropped as the software they've developed is refined”, wrote Josh Aas, executive director of the Internet Security Research Group (ISRG), which runs Let's Encrypt.
"Automation is a cornerstone of our strategy, and we need to make sure that the client works smoothly and reliably on a wide range of platforms," he wrote. “Digital certificates use the SSL/TLS (Secure Sockets Layer/Transport Layer Security) protocols to encrypt traffic exchanged between a user and a service, adding a higher level of privacy and security”.
A digital certificate is quite expensive and difficult, which is why they are not uniformly used across various websites. Let's Encrypt has tried to make the installation process free and less painful. It has developed an extensible client that fetches fresh certificates from the Let's Encrypt Certification Authority (CA) and configures web servers to use them. According to release notes on GitHub, the client will only run on Unix-like OSes that have Python 2.6 or 2.7. Eventually, support for Python 3.0 will be added.
The project goes a step further by planning to refine other aspects of dealing with certificates, such as automatic renewals when certificates expire, and support more servers such as Nginx.
Let's Encrypt comes across as a great help to a lot of organizations running websites that don't use SSL/TLS. Digital certificates can be quite expensive and can cost between US$600 and $800.
Although digital certificates have been plagued by occasional security breaches and mistakes by CAs, it's generally recommended that websites use encryption because it can stop more common attacks, such as snooping on someone's unencrypted traffic flowing through a public Wi-Fi access point.
It's also a defense against government surveillance programs, like the vast data collection operations by Western intelligence agencies that former NSA contractor Edward Snowden exposed. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, one of Let's Encrypt's backers, wrote that the public beta marks progress toward a more fully encrypted Web.
"A huge percentage of the world's daily Internet usage currently takes place over unecrypted HTTP, exposing people to illegal surveillance and injection of unwanted ads, malware, and tracking headers into the websites they visit," wrote Jacob Hoffman-Andrews, the EFF's senior staff technologist.