A popular implementation of public-key encryption is the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL). Originally developed by Netscape, SSL is an Internet security protocol used by Internet browsers and Web servers to transmit sensitive information. SSL has become part of an overall security protocol known as Transport Layer Security (TLS).
In your browser, you can tell when you are using a secure protocol, such as TLS, in a couple of different ways. You will notice that the "http" in the address line is replaced with "https," and you should see a small padlock in the status bar at the bottom of the browser window. When you're accessing sensitive information, such as an online bank account or a payment transfer service like PayPal or Google Checkout, chances are you'll see this type of format change and know your information will most likely pass along securely.
TLS and its predecessor SSL make significant use of certificate authorities. Once your browser requests a secure page and adds the "s" onto "http," the browser sends out the public key and the certificate, checking three things: 1) that the certificate comes from a trusted party; 2) that the certificate is currently valid; and 3) that the certificate has a relationship with the site from which it's coming.
The browser then uses the public key to encrypt a randomly selected symmetric key. Public-key encryption takes a lot of computing, so most systems use a combination of public-key and symmetric key encryption. When two computers initiate a secure session, one computer creates a symmetric key and sends it to the other computer using public-key encryption. The two computers can then communicate using symmetric-key encryption. Once the session is finished, each computer discards the symmetric key used for that session. Any additional sessions require that a new symmetric key be created, and the process is repeated.