If Your Private Key Gets Compromised, So Will Your Encrypted Data Its Why Key Management Systems Are Critical For Any Business Using Encryption
Do you know where your car keys are right now? Your house keys? Considering how important they are, we hope so (or else youll be taking an Uber home and then calling a locksmith). You also probably have a set place for them to reside when you arent using them somewhere secure, like inside your house or in your pocket.
If youre using encryption for any purpose, then you should have a similar system in place for your private keys. They are the critical piece of the cryptographic equation that, when combined with an algorithm, is the key (pun very much intended) to transforming encrypted ciphertext into plaintext that you and I can read.
One of the best things about encryption is that, if used properly, it is essentially impossible to crack. The private keys are one of the weak points, however. If someone gets their hands on yours then theyll be able to decipher the sensitive information that you intended to keep safe and secure. Thus, cryptography keys are one of the most crucial assets that any company has, with the value of the key being equal to that of your most vital data.
Whats the best way to keep your encryption keys safe from cybercriminals? Thats where key management systems come into play. They play a critical role in protecting and managing your keys, which can be especially difficult as a business scales and a handful of keys suddenly turns into hundreds, thousands, or more.
So, what does key management mean, exactly? What are the benefits of using a key management system? And what are the different types of key management platforms?
Lets hash it out.
When we talk about key management, were referring to all the tasks relating to cryptographic keys in an encryption system creation, usage, storage, exchanging, archiving, deleting, and replacing. The overall goal is to protect every key that an organization has, preventing attackers and unauthorized users from getting their hands on the data that has been secured via encryption.
Nowadays, companies possess more data than ever, with significant portions of it being sensitive information that must be protected. Because of the potential value of this data to cybercriminals, more and more businesses have turned to encryption to protect against an uptick in security breaches, prevent costly data losses, and remain compliant to regulatory requirements. Its now to the point that having thousands of cryptographic keys is commonplace, with key management systems (KMS) becoming the primary way of safely, securely, and efficiently handling them all.
Key management covers all of the keys in a cryptosystem at the user level, between either users or the system itself. An effective key management system should be robust and have comprehensive policies for:
There are three broad approaches that can be taken for key management systems:
We recommend a centralized approach in the vast majority of situations, finding that one single system is much easier to manage (with less potential for mistakes or oversights) and avoids contradictions or conflicts between teams or users. Even if different departments have drastically different needs, it is still better to make sure that everyone is on the same page as far as the basic protocols and requirements. Centralize your KMS as much as possible.
Without a proper management system in place, keys can be lost or compromised, resulting in lost access to critical data. Unfortunately, key management gets harder and harder as the size and complexity of your cryptographic ecosystem increases. Key management systems are designed to address the challenges that organizations face when dealing with cryptographic keys, things like:
Now lets go into more detail regarding the benefits that key management bring to a business and the reasons for implementing such systems.
The features of key management systems help boost security thanks to technical elements that help prevent lost, stolen, or misused keys by:
Many organizations turn to encryption because its a requirement of local laws or industry regulations. The specifics of the requirements can vary widely depending on industry, location, and other factors, but no matter what, companies want to avoid the costly fines and penalties that result from non-compliance.
Therefore, key management systems act as a kind of insurance, adding an extra layer of security for data that must be kept safe and confirming that the necessary precautions have been taken ahead of time in order to remain compliant with standards like:
Key management systems are designed to simplify, automate, and scale, which translates to reduced costs for organizations by:
Its the primary goal of encryption in the first place, and key management systems help maximize data protection. It empowers businesses to be selective about key access, only allowing certain employees, applications, or devices to access the keys, and thus the encrypted data they protect. The controls provided by key management systems play a crucial role in preventing valuable information from making its way into the hands of unauthorized or hostile users.
If a simple spreadsheet or list of keys sounds like a good idea, think again. Modern key management systems give users the ability to easily and efficiently manage their keys at every point in the lifecycle. There are different types of key management platforms that have different advantages and disadvantages depending on the needs of the end user. Regardless though, theres a few attributes you always want to look for:
As far as the platforms themselves, they can be broken down into a few basic types:
HSM stands for hardware security module, and is a kind of server that has additional levels of security levels in order to prevent breaches:
HSMs can be used to generate keys, keep them safe from electronic or physical attacks, and make use of the keys within while performing encryption or decryption tasks. An HSM can be used as a key management system, but there are downsides:
This is the same as above, except that the HSM is in the cloud, hosted by a third party provider. These are ideal for companies that are lacking in security resources and cant properly implement an HSM themselves or want to move their security off-site for any other reason. The same hardening measures are still present on the HSMs themselves, theyre just in a different physical location than the end user.
Virtual instances of key management systems offer a few different advantages over HSMs. First off, deployment is usually a much quicker process. HSMs are a physical product that need to be shipped somewhere. Then, a physical installation is needed. A virtual instance on the other hand, can be downloaded from a vendors server in a few minutes and no physical installation is required. Virtual systems also provide more flexibility than HSMs, since they can be installed on any machine that supports the virtual platform running the key manager, such as VMWare.
The virtual element can also be a downside, however. Because theres no physical components, the software of the key manager cannot be FIPS 140-2 validated it can only be FIPS 140-2 compliant. If youre required to have FIPS-140-2 validation by any particular regulations, then youll have to go with an HSM instead. Usually, though, the level of security given by a FIPS 140-2 compliant key manager system is more than enough for the average company.
A key manager system can also be dedicated, or as a service. This kind of configuration is offered by cloud providers like Amazon Web Services (AWS) or Microsoft Azure, which have marketplace offerings in addition to their own key management as a service (KMaaS) systems. These systems are usually multi-tenant, which can be viewed as a negative since it means that several different end users will have their keys stored on the same key manager instance. For clients with security concerns, this type of system is not ideal. Because of this, dedicated services are also usually offered by providers via independent vendors.
Its critical that every organization make key security a high priority, no matter what type of key management system they end up going with in the end. Key management systems make life much easier for end users, while maximizing security at the same time. Sensitive data needs to be restricted, and key management systems provide the kind of organization and control that will ultimately keep it out of the hands of attackers.
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