Encryption must be strong, used properly to reliably protect data
(Editor’s note: It is axiomatic that wider use of data encryption would help stem data breaches. In this guest essay, John Grimm, senior director of product marketing at Thales e-Security, examines the nuances.)
By John Grimm, Special to ThirdCertainty
The Anthem breach resulted in the exposure of up to 80 million records, including birthdays, addresses and Social Security numbers—everything an identity thief could hope for. Many of the headlines that covered the news included the fact that Anthem did not encrypt its internal data. According to one report, Anthem was actively “considering encrypting its internal database as well as taking other steps to improve its security” at the time of the attack.
To suggest that Anthem simply needed to encrypt the personal health information it was storing in the cloud is an oversimplification. Most practitioners today will agree that encryption is one of the best ways to protect data. However, although many regard encryption itself as being black and white—data is either encrypted or not—the reality is that there are several degrees of separation between properly implemented encryption and poorly implemented (and easily exploitable) encryption.
Much of the variance comes down to the quality of the crypto code itself, and the key management practices used. The end result may look the same, but the net level of security varies enormously. Encryption must be implemented properly using best practices and well-understood techniques like buffer overflow protection, principles of least privilege, .etc—or in today’s world, you’re taking your chances.
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Systems that process payments, personally identifiable information (PII), and other sensitive customer and corporate data must be trusted to do so securely. They must be in compliance with government, industry and corporate regulations and must minimize the impact on operational performance. There are numerous solutions on the market that employ cryptography to protect data end-to-end while in use, in transit and in storage. But what about the security of the cryptographic keys used within these crypto systems? Their foundation of trust relies on proper safekeeping and management of the keys—and that can prove to be the ultimate Achilles heel.
Once attackers have access to private encryption keys, they can decrypt past, present and future encrypted data—meaning key protection from the moment of generation, and then ongoing management throughout the lifetime of the key, is essential. However, not all business applications and data sets require the same level of protection. Organizations should conduct a proper risk assessment of critical systems to help determine which applications (and associated data) need the highest levels of protection. Certified protection of cryptographic keys may be necessary using specialized hardware security modules (HSMs) that remove keys from the host server environment and provide a safe place to generate, store and manage the most sensitive keys.
It’s a safe bet that Anthem soon will have a strong internal encryption strategy and an opportunity to safeguard PII data and win back the trust of its customers. Companies seeking to avoid breaches like this one would do well to locate and encrypt the most sensitive data within their network environments and protect and manage encryption keys like their data depends on it—because it does.