Keeping personal information secure and protected remains a top priority for computer users who now rely heavily on information systems to manage a large part of their personal and business lives. One of the ways to make sure only authorized users have access to information is the use of encryption, a process that transforms data from “cleartext to ciphertext” and back as a means to keep it secret from others. This is done through a combination of hardware- and software-based encryption. The scope is always the prevention of unintended data leakage.
The wide variety of types of encryption available (e.g., symmetric- and asymmetric encryption, hardware-based or software-based) can make a person uncertain on which one is best to suit their needs. Each of the cryptographic systems addresses specific aspects of keeping systems secure, so it is important to identify which one is the most appropriate for the situation.
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This article surveys how to gain cryptographic data protection with a variety of methods and mechanisms for the sake of digital privacy as well as solutions for data-at rest and data-in-motion. It also discusses new encryption techniques.
The Need of Encryption for Data Protection
Encryption is a necessity for organizations and users that handle sensitive data. Data ought to be secured for the entire duration of their lifecycle (at-rest, in-transit and in-use). Whether they are at rest in storage and databases on site or backed up in a cloud, whether they are sent to end users within organizations or remotely accessed through mobile devices, all data need proper protection and ad-hoc solutions.
The growing use of mobile devices to access sensitive data and corporate applications along with the use of cloud solutions for software, storage, hardware and services has opened a new world of security problems. Data loss prevention, security practices and strategies employed (firewalls, IDS, coupled with authentication and access controls) in addition to encryption tools are more important than ever as information are no longer being stored and processed in the safety of companies’ on-site servers and behind firewalls, but are actually being manipulated and transferred through a variety of communication channels. Data protection is nothing new, but it remains a significant challenge for organizations and businesses needing to find better ways to protect user data from unauthorized use.
Be it corporate-, personal-, customer- or transaction-data, the risk of theft or loss throughout the lifecycle is massive. With data theft caused by employees and external parties on the rise, businesses risk their reputation, lack of regulatory compliance, and, ultimately, loss of clients.
Lack of Encryption
Why encrypting? Since a complex password by itself is no longer good enough as a means to protect corporate or personal data, by encrypting the data exchanged between the client and server, any sensitive information can be sent over a network, such as the Internet, with less risk of being intercepted during transit. Plaintext can be easily intercepted by prying eyes and eavesdroppers when transiting in data streams; information can be stolen or altered. Encryption is an effective way of making sure data remain secure.
Data, however, is not just vulnerable when in transit. Some of the worst data security breaches noted in the 21st century and pertaining to lack of encryption go far back as 2005 when CardSystems Solutions’ system was hacked and was victim of an SQL Trojan attack; hackers gained access to names and accounts numbers of more than 40 million card holders. Security reports noted that the company never encrypted the data, thus exposing personal info on all its clients.
Another noteworthy incident occurred in 2006 with a group of hackers taking advantage of a weak data encryption system at TJX Companies Inc. Poor security on the company’s wireless networks had resulted in massive data theft, and 94 million credit cards were exposed. Another instance that shows the human element being the weakest link in the security chain is the case of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ unencrypted national database theft. Names, social security numbers and other sensible information were found on a laptop and external hard drive that were both stolen. This episode, also in 2006, affected some 26.5 million veterans, whose personal data was taken in a burglary from a VA analyst’s Maryland home.
A more recent event involved Sony’s PlayStation Network that had 12 million unencrypted credit card numbers hacked. In 2012, a NASA laptop was stolen; it contained records of sensitive personal identifiable information of employees and contractors. Lately, news has reported of an unencrypted, password-protected laptop that was stolen at the Community Technology Alliance containing social security numbers and names of 1,177 people. Another device containing data for 2,800 patients was stolen from Northwestern Memorial Health Care.
As the need for encryption is clear to attempt ensuring the integrity and confidentiality of data, the first decision security professionals need to make is between software-based or hardware-based encryption. Both have pros and cons to be considered and can definitely be applied in a combination of ways to ensure maximum protection according to the users’ needs.
Software-based encryption can be extended to all data, devices, and users in an organization. It works well to secure e-mails, instant messaging, data in transit and web sites. These solutions are normally cheaper and easy to customize and update. Common drawbacks are performance degradation and vulnerabilities linked to those of the operating systems in which they operate. Risks are linked also to the ease of being turned off by users.
Hardware-based solutions are specific to the device they protect. Full drive encryption (FDE) or solutions like self-encrypted drives (SEDs) are an effective approach that simplifies the deployment of security for data at rest and makes it easier for organizations to manage security of data when stored. The advantage of hardware-based solutions is that they bypass many of the typical drawbacks of software-based solutions like performance degradation or vulnerability to attacks aimed at the encryption key stored in memory. Being encryption available at drive-level, this hardware solution also is perfectly independent by any software or operating system used, and usually cannot be turned off by users. Drawbacks are obvious. Hardware solutions are specific to the devices they protect, and updates can normally be performed only by substituting the device.
The Encryption Process & Protecting Data Today
One of the basic concepts of encryption is the need for keys to encrypt and decrypt the message. The process of encryption is done with two individual keys – a private key and a public key; this is referred to as asymmetric encryption, while symmetric encryption requires using one key for both steps. Encryption simply acts as a form of digital lock that prevents unauthorized users from accessing data. In addition, by adding a signature with a private key, a person can prove his or her own identity and make tampering with the message more difficult. Just like sensitive messages, the key must also be adequately protected, secured and kept hidden from unauthorized users.
A number of encryption methods can be employed to secure data especially when in transit, since that is when they are more vulnerable. The content can be intercepted through some effort of wiretapping or eavesdropping by an intruder.
In link-to-link encryption, for example, the message is decrypted at each host as it travels so it is vulnerable if any of the hosts is not secure. This method works well within an organization, for internal use, where all communication nodes security is well known, but might not be the safest method when the message is out in the open.
Lately, much attention has been given to end-to-end encryption. This system allows safety of data by ensuring that only the people that are communicating are able to read the message. No one except the sender and the receiver is able to decrypt the message (not even the Internet provider) which is passed from host to host still encrypted. A renowned German e-mail provider, for example, has implemented the use of this methodology for all its users in an attempt to secure their communication from eavesdropping and intrusion.
As securing information in a datacenter that requires protection for a multi-vendor infrastructure or the cloud is becoming a widespread need, new solutions and techniques had to be developed to render the transmission of data more secure. In most cases, solutions are needed to be deployed simultaneously on network shares, file services, application and web servers as well as database servers.
Techniques like tokenization have been deployed to make sure that data exchanged from different servers and sent to onsite, cloud and mobile end users are still safely handled. In the case of tokenization, for example, data are safely stored and replaced by tokens that are used within an organization to process the information, trigger action and perform tasks. The data never leave their safe storage place and cannot be compromised even if the token is intercepted. This method is extremely helpful when dealing with credit card numbers and financial info in general.
Honey encryption, instead, is a technique that can provide additional security when passwords are used as keys. This is particularly effective against conventional brute-force attacks. The concept is simple; in normal circumstances, when intruders intercept a message and attempt to guess the key that encrypts it, all they can get is a manifestly non-usable response. The result is that the malicious hacker continues to attempt until successful. Honey encryption, devised by Juels and Ristenpart, produces a ciphertext that when decrypted with a number of wrong keys gives a “honey message”, a fake plaintext that satisfies the attacker but does not relinquish any real data. Although effective, honey encryption, obviously, is not helpful when the attacker already has a few of the puzzle pieces (for example the public key associated with the private key) and therefore is useless in the protection of HTTPS certificate keys. The method is, however, effective when protecting, for example, password vaults, collections of passwords protected by one master key.
An interesting technique for the handling of sensitive data in a cloud environment has been designed by Craig Gentry, a researcher from IBM: Homomorphic encryption. This form of encryption allows users to store data in a cloud encrypted while still being able to analyze and mine data. In fact, computations can be performed on the encrypted data in the cloud server, and only the results are decrypted by the end user. This can be used for any data, including, for example, entire collections of e-mails and messages that could be securely worked on without exposing the messages contained within. Although homomorphic encryption has been explored for 30 years, it is thanks to the work of Gentry (since 2008) that finally the system is being perfected and getting close to having practical applications. Although still too slow and requiring a larger-than-practical number of computations, this type of encryption could soon be applied.
DNA Cryptography is another method being explored; it can be defined as hiding data as a DNA Sequence. This technique is based on DNA computing designed by the work of Leonard Max Adleman (the A in RSA) beginning in the year 1994. This modus operandi is still in the initial phases of development, but results are promising.
One more is for Quantum Cryptographic tasks and, in particular, QKD (Quantum Key Distribution). Secure communication is ensured by a random key shared by sender and receiver. The advantage of this method is that, as for all quantum systems, a third party that enters it creates a disturbance that can be noted by the sender and receiver. An eavesdropper would cause the communication to be aborted, as the key would not be shared.
According to data collected by BreachLevelIndex, more than 2 million records per day were breached in the year 2014. It is clear that more and more attention needs to be given to the security of data both at rest and in transit.
Coupled with users’ access control, encryption is an effective means of securing sensitive information. Multiple techniques of cryptography are important to ensure data integrity in the three components of the CIA (Confidentiality, Integrity, Availability).
Encryption is not just for companies and organizations. Individual users also should consider protecting their own data. With mobile devices now allowing users’ access to all their sensitive information (personal, financial, even medical) and with the growing use of cloud solutions, it is paramount that encryption is adopted and new techniques developed.
Currently, many encryption products are available on the market, some are free, and can suit everyone’s needs. With today’s encryption technologies constantly being developed to deliver enhanced security across a range of channels for private communication and storage, there is no reason why this protective measure should not be applied to safeguard data from hackers who continue to develop sophisticated techniques in the attempt to steal information.
Whatever the data are and wherever they reside, they ought to be safeguarded: password protected and encrypted. Business data needs to be safe and placed in a secure environment. Failure to apply authentication and end-to-end encryption for limited access to data could lead to possible exposure by intruders. Whatever protection may be necessary depends on the assets that are being protected. Often, businesses requirements and regulatory considerations will dictate what approach is best. Users need to analyze their needs and apply the right products to prevent unauthorized access to information and opt to utilize software and hardware technologies to facilitate the encryption of computer, mobile devices and media.
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Juels, A. (2014, January 29). Honey Encryption: Security Beyond the Brute-force Bound. Retrieved from http://pages.cs.wisc.edu/~rist/papers/HoneyEncryptionpre.pdf
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