What Are SSL Errors?

By J.T. Barett

Provides an overview of what SSL is, what SLL errors are and what actions to take when you see SSL errors.

_Secure Sockets Layer_ is a crucial computer security technology without which Web-based commerce wouldn’t exist. SSL errors occasionally crop up from flawed website security data but may come from other causes. When you see an SSL error, in most instances you should avoid the website.

What Is SSL?

SSL is software located on your PC and on the computers that host websites. The software encrypts, or mathematically scrambles, all information that passes between your computer and the site you’re visiting. Encryption prevents an eavesdropper from intercepting any meaningful data from your session, protecting valuable credit card and other personal data. When your browser goes to a site whose address begins with https:, it and the remote Web server perform a complex “handshake” to make a secure SSL connection.

The website’s owner must obtain a special data file called a digital certificate before his or her site can use SSL. The file contains a variety of coded information that verifies the site owner’s identity.

Why SSL Errors Happen

A failure of any part of the handshake process results in a browser SSL error message. For instance, if the data on your PC and the remote Web server do not match, the SSL won't work and will cause an error. If information is out of sync, the browser displays an SSL error. An expired digital certificate will also cause SSL errors. SSL errors can also point to problems with your PC’s software or hardware. In any case of SSL error, the browser does not display the site unless you override the error by clicking a button on the warning dialog box.

What to Do about SSL Errors

In the majority of cases, an SSL error means “avoid this website.” Even if you've visited the site before, wait until the owner fixes the error before visiting again.

Warning

Sites with invalid certificates may engage in identity theft or harbor computer viruses.

Tip

A browser that suddenly displays SSL errors for many different websites may mean the problem is local to your home environment -- either in your PC’s hardware or software, or due to a faulty Wi-Fi router. Update your Web browser and make sure your operating system software is current. Run a virus scanner on your PC to check for malware. Take the computer to a qualified technician if you suspect hardware problems.