For some communications, such as credit card payments and online banking transactions, it is standard to encrypt the information that users and websites send each other. But most online activity is completely unprotected, largely because encrypting communications requires extra work from Web servers and software, which is costly to implement.
Search queries and social media updates, for example, are almost exclusively sent in forms easily read by a third party snooping on Web traffic. Listening in to Web traffic can be as simple as using the same Wi-Fi network as the target, as Ashton Kutcher found when his Twitter account was hijacked at the TED conference earlier this year, by means of a Firefox add-on called Firesheep.
A microchip developed by semiconductor design company Cavium could allow much more—perhaps even all—Web traffic to be encrypted, by reducing the cost of implementing encryption. Cavium's Nitrox III chip is designed to be installed in data centers that serve up Web pages and manage Web apps. It's specialized design is extremely fast and efficient at the mathematical calculations underpinning the encryption that secures Web sites that use the protocol SSL. Sites secured this way have Web addresses that start with HTTPS, instead of HTTP.