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Securing encryption keys is paramount

Protect your most critical data and your access to it by following these tips for securing encryption keys

Strong encryption is a central and essential defense in the battle to protect sensitive data. The process of encrypting data is not that challenging, and the tools to do it are not that complicated. However, managing the numerous and ever-changing encryption keys across their life-cycle introduces many obstacles and vulnerabilities. As each encrypted item has its own personal key, the management and protection of thousands of encryption keys within an enterprise becomes a huge undertaking. Organizations thus need to balance the competing needs for impregnable data security and manageable access.

If you lose the keys to your house, you can call a locksmith to open the door, or you can break a window in the back. But if you lose the encryption keys to your data, the data could be irretrievable. The danger of data becoming inaccessible even to those with clearance is quite real. A lost encryption key could bring about a disaster on the level of a failed hard drive or a corrupt database.

Once data is secured through encryption, the encryption keys themselves must be guarded from theft or accidental loss. The following tips can help your organization protect its encryption keys to prevent them falling into the wrong hands or getting lost:

  • Physically secure encryption systems: The machines and systems that run encryption programs and store the encryption keys should be physically secured with locked doors and other appropriate measures. Access ought be granted to those with adequate knowledge and integrity.
  • Do not store encryption keys with the data they decrypt: Encryption keys should be stored on separate machines from the data they are used to unlock. When they are both located on the same machine, if that machine is compromised so also are the keys.
  • Have an audit trail: Audit logs show who has accessed what data and when. This information can prevent keys from becoming compromised and provide crucial information about the compromise if there is a data breach.
  • Maintain a secure and frequently updated off-site backup of encryption keys: Having all your encryption keys locked up and on one secure machine does no good if that machine fails. If all the keys are lost in a drive failure, the encrypted data will become inaccessible.
  • Manage encryption key life-cycle: The most secure encryption keys are set to expire after a predetermined time period. No matter how well secured these encryption keys are, if they expire without a new key being issued, saved, backed up, and secured, the keys will be useless.
  • Encrypt keys as another layer of security: Encryption works great for securing your data. Why not use it to secure your keys?
  • Require multi-factor authentication for any master keys: An authorized staff member should be able to access keys to rebuild databases from encrypted backups in case of a disaster. However, these keys should have the extra layer of security that only multi-factor authentication can offer.
  • Make it possible to change keys periodically: Changing keys in the case of a data breach is a necessary precaution. The ability to change keys periodically can also prevent unauthorized access if keys were unknowingly accessed.
  • Have a key recovery procedure: Accidental data loss is nearly an inevitable occurrence in computing. Keys will be compromised. Making sure there is a secure procedure for recovering lost keys will guarantee that data will be accessible.
  • Keep recovery keys in escrow: In addition to or as an alternative to off-site backup of encryption keys, a trusted third-party could be entrusted with a sealed escrow packet of keys.

These are a few methods for managing and safeguarding the keys that protect your data. Protecting and securing encryption keys is as much about preventing unauthorized access of data as it is about preventing data loss. Having a full encryption management system that protects encryption keys is the most effective way to keep data safe.

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