While encryption will deter data breaches, it comes with its own baggage â and keys
It is not a question of if the bad actors will access
confidential or highly classified data, rather it is a question of can
attackers read and use confidential and classified data after they access it.
Many experts believe the assumption that attackers eventually will get inside
your network and reach private data, but whether they can exfiltrate data or
even read it is quite another question.
Data encryption for years has been the go-to security
technology to protect the most sensitive data in an organization because it is
so effective at stopping cybercriminals from exploiting information assets.
With so much data moving to and from the cloud, a growing
number of increasingly sophisticated threats, and new data privacy regulations
taking hold, encryption can be found virtually everywhere at many
organizations. Today, encryption still holds an honored position as an
essential security technology, but as with all such technologies, it is only a
matter of time before it becomes as obsolete as the password.
âEncryption has generally been viewed as a foundational
technology for protecting sensitive data,â says David Mahdi, senior director,
research and advisory, at Gartner Inc. âAs such, many industry experts
recommend encryption and other data protection technologies to ensure that risk
and regulations are accounted for.â
A key question for IT and security executives as they look
to bolster defenses with more encryption tools: What impact is the encryption
technology having on systems performance and user experience and productivity?
This is not a trivial question. For years, business
executives have wondered whether cybersecurity tools would slow down the
performance of vital systems and end users have complained about the
intrusiveness of these tools as they try to get their work done.
With encryption, companies ideally want to use the
technology on data while it is at rest, in transit, and in memory. But with so
much encryption technology in place, there is the potential for it to backfire
because of the unintended consequences.
So far, security executives and industry experts say, that has not been the case because the technology has advanced over the years. But that is not to say the encryption everywhere approach is devoid of challenges. Perhaps the most common challenge is the management of keys, which can grow more complex as companies use encryption more broadly.
Building an encrypted infrastructure
âWe use encryption pretty much wherever we can because of
its âget out of jailâ benefit,â says Jason Taule, chief security officer and
chief privacy officer at FEI Systems, a company that provides healthcare
information services for federal, state, and local governments.
âIt basically allows us to make the case that the data was
not exposed to risk of harm,â Taule says.
Specifically, FEI Systems uses Transport Layer Security
(TLS), a cryptographic protocol designed to provide data privacy and integrity
over networks, wherever possible. That includes email exchanges, all data at
rest, and as an I/O function of its storage network.
All endpoint devices are whole-disk encrypted, and the
company uses BitLocker, a full-volume encryption feature included with
Microsoft Windows, to encrypt all removable media devices such as USB drives
before any data can be written to these devices.
As a government contractor operating in the healthcare IT
industry and subject to many regulations including the Federal Information
Security Management Act (FISMA) and the Health Insurance Portability and
Accountability Act (HIPAA), FEI Systems has been obligated to implement
encryption controls since its inception, Taule says.
Acosta Sales and Marketing Co., a full-service sales,
marketing and services business, uses encryption everywhere except in legacy
applications, according to John David Frymier, Acostaâs CISO.
That includes in the companies network-attached storage
(NAS) and storagearea network (SAN) systems, as well as in all data center
servers. In addition, the mobile device management (MDM) platform Acosta uses
encrypts all the contents of mobile devices, and the company uses BitLocker
whole-disk encryption on its PCs.
The companyâs web sites and its remote access system use SSL
(Secure Socket Layer) to encrypt communications. âEverything going to and from
and stored with our cloud service providers is encrypted,â Frymier says.
Acosta has steadily increased its use of encryption over the
past 10 or so years, ue to a combination of contributing factors.
One of the biggest factors, as with FEI Systems, is the
increase in data privacy laws. For example, data privacy legislation passed in
Massachusetts in 2009, 201 CMR 17.00, made mandatory the encryption of
in-storage personal data about state residents.
The company also needed to comply with industry-specific
security regulations such as Graham-Leach-Bliley Act (also known as the
Financial Modernization Act of 1999) and HIPAA, as well as contractual
requirements such as the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS)
rules. These laws and regulations have not only driven adoption of encryption
within organizations, but encouraged hardware and software vendors to embed
encryption in their products, Frymier says.
Another factor in the rise of encryption use was the
implementation of encryption algorithms in chips, which made it more cost
effective to use encryption and removed much of the performance impact, Frymier
Acostaâs use of encryption is not having any ill effects on
systems performance or user experience, Frymier says. âIt used to, but these
days with hardware support, generally faster CPUs, and networks all around, the
performance impact is not human noticeable,â he notes. âFrom an end-user
perspective, most of them donât even realize itâs there.â
More and more organizations are relying on a zero trust
model in which the âencrypt everythingâ approach is used to verify identities,
provision entitlements to services, and protect data stored in and moving to
and from the cloud, says Ariel Silverstone, managing partner and former vice
president of security strategy, privacy and trust at GoDaddy, an Internet
domain registrar and web-hosting company. Silverstone is also a member of the
SC Media Editorial Advisory Board.
Regulations, especially those that address data breaches,
make the use of encryption a âno-brainer,â Silverstone says. âOften that is the
only option above liability when an organization is breached,â he says.
Go Daddy increased its use of encryption throughout the
organization, especially for the transmission of sensitive and personal data,
but also to âpre-expireâ datasets. âWe do that so on a specific date the data
stored will become irretrievable,â and therefore no longer subject to data
protection requirements of regulations such as the European Unionâs General
Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and other laws, Silverstone says.
The technology is nothing like it was years ago in terms of
affecting system performance, Silverstone says. âAbout 30 years ago, when I
designed client systems, encryption used to have up to 75 percent cost of CPU
and of memory time,â he says. âNowadays, we are approaching 0.5 percent and
thus, not material.â
Dealing with challenges
User experience is not really effected by encryption either,
Silverstone says. Encryption, and in particular digital certificates, âremain
one of the only technologies out there which allow truly massive deployment,
authentication, and authorization resources,â he says. While the growing use of
encryption might not be having an adverse impact on system performance or
worker productivity, it is not without challenges. One of the biggest is
âI donât mean to trivialize the algorithmic side of
cryptology, but at the end of the day itâs just a repetitive dance with a bunch
of bits,â Frymier says. What is operationally difficult about encryption is
managing the keys, he says.
Consider this scenario: A company has an encrypted database
sitting on an encrypted SAN, which is backed up by an encrypted archive system.
If this database contains financial information that is used to file tax returns,
for example, the company needs to hang onto it for seven years.
âThatâs three sets of keys and three different management
systems you have to keep straight for that period of time,â Frymier says. The
company also needs to keep the keys secure. And while commercially available
encryption has made general adoption much easier, each vendor has its own key
âSo people have to be trained, well trained, in how to do
that,â Frymier says. âOtherwise, you can lose control of your own data.â
Key generation and use also need to be non-trivial. For
instance, if a companyâs web presence involves hundreds of internet-facing
servers performing a variety of tasks, it might seem operationally efficient
for them to all have the same SSL key.
âHowever, if one of those servers gets compromised and the
private key exposed, the traffic to all the rest could be in jeopardy,â Frymier
says. Each organization needs to find its happy medium in key management, which
balances the risk of compromise against the cost of operations.
FEI Systems also has found key management to be a hurdle,
including the creation, maintenance, and recovery of keys, as well as password
and key communication for encrypted attachments.
For instance, to decrypt an encrypted disk when a user
leaves the company or if a password/key is lost, FEI needs to create and store
a recovery key. Backup compatibility is another issue. Backups of data that is
already encrypted at rest requires backups of keys, Taule says. This is more
complex than backing up unencrypted data and then encrypting it with the backup
software, he says.
Then there is also the challenge of managing keys for cloud
encryption, which some vendors do not provide.
To address these issues, the company relies on centralized
key administration and is increasingly leveraging the encryption capabilities
of the underlying operating systems it uses, Taule says.
Another challenge is that encryption can affect different
applications, such as databases, in different ways.
âThe affect varies based on the nature, platform,
architecture, and design of the application, which is why whenever possible we
seek to implement encryption in the underlying infrastructure rather than
solely within the application/ database,â Taule says.
In a database, encrypting the entire platform is
substantially different than encrypting certain cells, Silverstone adds.
âSimilar differences occur with other use cases,â he says. âEncryption used
properly is a useful tool. Used improperly, it can present enormous costs and
even prevent a system from operating.â
Some applications cannot handle encrypted data, since encryption
changes the format of the data, Mahdi says. For example, credit cards use
mostly numbers, and the process of encryption turns the data into long strings
of text. In many cases, applications that rely on this data, such as databases
and customer resource management (CRM), cannot store the encrypted data.
Furthermore, data cannot be encrypted at all times, which
leaves it exposed. When organizations want to analyze their sensitive data,
they have to unencrypt it, Mahdi says. As a result, the data is exposed for the
duration of the analysis.
âThis can problematic, as in todayâs environment a number of
analytic and business intelligence tools are spread across a number of silos,â
including cloud services, Mahdi says. The time spent encrypting and unencrypting
can add a lot of processing time, and potentially unintended exposure of data.
Organizations can help address this by deploying a layered
security approach using a number of security tools such as encryption key
management products that offer lifecycle management of the encryption keys;
data access governance products that bring a layer of management down to the
data itself by allowing security leaders to build policies around unstructured
files and folders; and identity and access management software that manage the
accounts and access of users.
A Growing Market
One question certainly on the minds of security executives
is how well current encryption technology will deal with emerging security
threats and those forms of attack that still lurk in the imagination of
cybercriminals but have yet to become a reality.
To be sure, there is still plenty of demand for encryption
technologies and likely will be for years to come.
Gartner has seen an uptick in inquiries from organizations
about encryption, including where and when it should be applied. âIn fact, we
are starting to hear more clients use the term âdata-centric security,ââ Mahdi
The firmâs research identifies a number of factors that are
creating a groundswell of activity in the market, he continues. One of these is
ongoing migrations to cloud computing services.
âClients are now moving to the cloud much more aggressivelyâ
to ensure business agility, among a variety of other reasons, Mahdi says.
Another big driver, as cited by the organizations using encryption
broadly, are data privacy regulations. In particular, GDPR continues to cause
many organizations to re-evaluate their stance on data security and whether
they need to encrypt more data.
âLarger regulations, such as GDPR, have had a substantial impact
on the behavior of not only organizations, but also service providers and
vendors,â Mahdi says.
While GDPR is focused on the European Union (EU) citizens
and companies outside of Europe that handle the personal information of EU
citizens, a lot of vendors and service providers recognize that the EU is a
large market. âAs such, many have or are in the process of adjusting their
product roadmaps to account for data and privacy protection technologies and
techniques that allow them to adhere to GDPR,â Mahdi says.
The reality is that GDPR will have a global impact and will
influence other countries and jurisdictions with respect to data and privacy
protection, according to Mahdi.
And a third key factor is that breaches and cybersecurity
are now board-level issues at a lot of organizations. Senior executives appear
far more willing to spend more on data protection, including encryption. This
likely is due, in part, to recent laws that make board members and senior
executives potentially liable in cases of data breaches.
As a result of all of this, Gartner predicts that through
2024 more than 60 percent of enterprises will purchase enterprisewide
encryption products, up from the fewer than 20 percent in 2018.
Like other aspects of data security, the market has experienced
new entrants promising superior ways of encryption using alternate or newer
technologies. Examples of such technologies include keyless encryption,
hardware-based runtime encryption using the enclave model, multi-party compute,
On the Horizon
Looking ahead toward future challenges, the advent of
quantum computing threatens to defeat current encryption methodologies, Taule
says. Because of this, his company is investing in privileged account
management tools that allow it to use encryption keys with greater bit lengths
and increased entropy. It plans to deploy those by next year.
Eventually, FEI Systems will need to start thinking about
elliptic-curve cryptography (ECC), Taule says. ECC is an approach to public-key
encryption based on the algebraic structure of elliptic curves over finite
fields. It requires smaller keys compared with cryptography that does not
involve elliptic curves to provide equivalent security.
Elliptic curves can be used for key agreement, digital
signatures, and other tasks, and can be used for encryption by combining a key
agreement with a symmetric encryption scheme. But Taule says the use ECC for
encryption is still years away.
For his part, Frymier is not concerned about encryptionâs
inability to take on the latest security threats and those that will emerge in
the future. âIf you have a properly implemented encryption system and you keep
your keys secure, itâs pretty immune to compromise â from new or old security
threats,â he says.
Modern public key encryption derives its security from the
difficulty of factoring a large number into two prime numbers, Frymier says.
Some conspiracy theorists think the U.S. National Security Administration (NSA)
has solved this problem and can break any encryption.
âPersonally, I donât believe that,â Frymier says. âOthers
argue that quantum computers will make short work of our âmodern encryption.â
Iâll start worrying about that when quantum computers become more than a gleam
in a theoristâs eye.â
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