SSL or Payload Encryption Discussion Post

With the emphasis on IOT security SSL has become the de facto solution for MQTT connections.

In fact the majority of the questions I get are SSL related .

What I find surprising is that not many appear to be considering using payload encryption instead of SSL and certificates.

Payload encryption has in my opinion many advantages over using SSL. The main ones are:

  1. It is end to end and not link based.
  2. There is no broker configuration required.
  3. The technique can also hide topic names.

The Rational for SSL and the Problems with SSL

SSL is used extensively on the web e.g shopping websites, Gmail etc.

SSL is secure and provides good link encryption.

Link encryption is sufficient in a client server environment where the server hosts the actual application.

However in the example of Gmail. link encryption is not really sufficient as the email needs to be forwarded across the email network and so for end to end encryption the entire link chain needs to be encrypted.

Therefore SSL encryption has shortcoming when dealing with a message based system which is what email is, and also what MQTT is.

For an MQTT message to be secure then the publisher and subscriber must both use SSL.Also any bridged connections must also use SSL.

Encrypting Message Payloads.

This is quite a straightforward process in Python and node-red. I did a Python example some time ago.

How to Encrypt MQTT Payloads with Python – Example Code

and will also be doing a node-red flow shortly.

Topic Obfuscation

Another option in addition to payload encryption is to topic obfuscation using the playfair cipher or Caesar cipher for example.

I am not really sure if this is really of any use but maybe you have an example.

I hope to try this and other methods in the coming weeks.


This post is a discussion post and I would be very grateful for any thoughts you may have.


Please rate? And use Comments to let me know more


  1. I will look forward to your articles / videos using payload encrytion for Node-RED. I also think such techniques would have far wider appeal if they could be used with MQTT on devices such as ESP8266 / ESP32 using the Arduino or platformIO IDE’s or C / C++ coding rather than python. I believe Nick O’Leary’s PubsubClient library is the most widely used MQTT client on those devices. So, if it were possible to use payload encrytion along with that library it would be very useful.

      1. Hi Steve, your blog posts are always very appreciated. On the topic of codes for C/C++, I have been using CBOR to serialize my MQTT payloads in an ESP32 and the COSE protocol based on CBOR offers encryption capabilities. While Python has got a pyCOSE library which is very easy to use, I haven’t been able to find any easy way to implement COSE on tinyCBOR (the CBOR library I use on the ESP32 module). It’d be interesting if in the future to see some of these aspects and especially for C/C++ environments, maybe on the topic of payload serialization, since CBOR is especially suited for M2M communications compared to JSON.

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