Skip the navigation

Encryption key management worries loom

Encrypted storage will require storage admins to think through key management

By Robert L. Scheier
November 26, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - As long as IT managers encrypt data using only one vendor's products, the keys used to decrypt that data can be relatively easy to manage. But it will likely become much more complicated as more vendors build encryption into more and different types of storage devices, each with their own key management system, and as users need to move encrypted data among devices for disaster recovery, legal discovery or simply everyday business communications.

"If you share the key, you share the data; if you lost the key, you've lost the data," says Dennis Hoffman, general manager of the data security unit of RSA Security Inc., now owned by EMC Corp. The fear of losing decryption keys (and thus their data) has kept many organizations from encrypting stored data. But faced with regulations requiring that customer data be kept safe, and the prospect of hefty fines and bad publicity when backup tapes are lost, more and more companies are encrypting stored data. Another factor, security experts say, is that if the data on a lost or stolen tape or disk drive has been encrypted, the company that owns the data often isn't required to report the loss.

While in the past encryption usually required a standalone appliance, vendors including IBM, Sun Microsystems and Spectra Logic offer tape libraries with built-in encryption capabilities. In October, Seagate Technology announced it will include Full Disk Encryption (FDE) technology in all its enterprise-class drives, and vendors such as Oracle Corp. offer encryption in their databases.

That blizzard of encryption, and of keys, calls for a single, unified approach that puts "all the keys to the kingdom all in one place and managed, ideally, by one group in the organization," says Richard Moulds, vice president of nCipher Corp. Ltd., a security hardware and software vendor. Whether or not the storage group is in charge of key management, experts say, they need to understand how key management works and where storage keys fit into the big picture.

Encryption basics

Encryption converts plain text into unreadable form, and keys are numbers which are used by an algorithm to either encrypt or decrypt data.

In symmetric encryption, the same key is used for both encryption and decryption. Asymmetric encryption, also called public key encryption, employs two keys, one public and one private, and is often used to encrypt communication over unsecure channels such as the Internet. In public key encryption, the sender uses the recipient's public key (to which they have access) to encrypt the data, and the recipient uses their private key (to which only they have access) to decrypt it.



Our Commenting Policies