That little padlock icon in your Internet browser actually means something

Sometimes techies take things for granted. Like thinking that everyone, even noobies, knows what the little padlock icon in Internet Explorer or Firefox represents. If you’re not familiar with what I’m talking about look at the two images below. The top image shows the padlock in Internet Explorer. The bottom image shows the padlock in Firefox.

Internet Explorer padlock icon

The red arrow in the image above points to the location of the padlock icon in Internet Explorer 7.

Firefox padlock icon

The red arrow in the image above points to the location of the padlock icon in Firefox 3.

Why are these padlocks so important? Because they mean you are transmitting data securely between your computer and the web site. In techie terms, the data you are sending is encrypted. That means that you credit card number you enter on the web site might be transmitted over the Internet as kj234o98ugojasfmn2wrlkjafou2394u231nslmnas8u0s98wrnl,nsa09. Not very meaningful to anyone except your computer and the computer that houses the web site you are viewing.

On the contrary without the padlock, and thus without encrypting the data, your credit card number is sent over the Internet exactly as you typed it. Not very safe at all.

The padlock is not a guarantee

Now don’t think that just because you see the padlock when you visit a web site that there is no way your credit card number can be compromised. The web site itself still decrypts the mumbo jumbo back into your actual credit card number so you have to trust the web site that it will protect the data you just sent it.

But do yourself a favor. If you are on a web site that you trust and are about to submit your credit card number, make sure you see the little padlock icon. If you have trouble finding the icon or remembering to look for it, at least look at the address bar of your browser. When you are on a secure site the web site address should begin with https:// not https://. Note the extra s on the first one which stands for “secure”.

Finally, if you are one of those that just plain refuses to submit a credit card number over a secure and trusted site on the Internet, do me a favor. Next time you go to a restaurant and hand the server your credit card, get out a stopwatch. Then see how long you just let that server walk away out of your site with your unencrypted, unsecured and signed credit card.