What is encryption key management?

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By Prateek Panda

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  • If cryptographic keys are not kept secure, encryption defenses are compromised.
  • Encryption key management is how organizations protect crypto keys throughout their lifecycle.
  • Best practice needs to be employed at every stage of the encryption key management process to ensure effective security.
  • Environments outside an organization’s security defenses, such as applications and IoT devices, need extra software-based protection to keep cryptographic keys safe.

 

When it comes to data security, strong encryption is essential. Data that’s held on servers or transmitted online should always be encrypted with strong ciphers to prevent attackers from being able to read and use data they steal. But encrypting data becomes useless if you don’t secure the cryptographic keys used during the process. As a well-known security analyst put it, “Locking the door doesn’t do any good if the key is under the doormat where anyone can find it.”

Encryption key management helps firms keep keys safe and ensures data security and the integrity of their systems. But what exactly is encryption key management? As a discipline, it’s evolved significantly over the past decade but its basic principles remain constant.

What is encryption key management?

Encryption key management is the process by which organizations keep their cryptographic keys secure throughout their lifecycle. It involves employing secure best practices at each stage of the process, which can be summarized as:

  1. Generation
  2. Exchange
  3. Usage
  4. Storage
  5. Revocation

Encryption keys secure data and device identities by authenticating users and giving them the means to encrypt and decrypt data. The secret keys used to keep information, communication, and systems safe are a major target for hackers; if they steal these then even the strongest cryptography in the world can be bypassed. These keys must be generated, distributed, and stored, providing multiple potential points of exposure and compromise. For example, hackers reverse engineer software to find keys stored in the application code. Or they search through the memory of running applications to discover keys as they are being used in cryptographic operations. 

This means that the keys themselves must be regulated and protected. Poor practices, weak security, and human error can undo even the most complex cryptographic systems. Encryption key management puts a framework in place that mitigates possible security flaws and reduces the risk that cryptographic keys will be compromised.

What is encryption key management used for?

Robust encryption key management covers the entire lifecycle of cryptographic keys and their protection. As attackers will always seek the easiest path to finding and stealing keys, every stage of the encryption key management process must be hardened to ensure complete key security.

The cryptographic key lifecycle includes: 

  • Generation of keys: Cryptographic keys need to be generated securely within a trusted system. On servers or cloud platforms this is often performed in a physically and logically secure dedicated hardware device called a Hardware Security Module (HSM). The process of securely generating keys can be extremely complex, requiring effective infrastructure and safeguards.
  • Governing the distribution of keys: Due to the sensitive nature of cryptographic keys, best practice needs to be employed in deciding who has access to keys, how roles are segregated and how keys are transmitted. 
  • How keys are to be used: This concerns not only how the keys are used (e.g., symmetric keys being swapped to enable data exchange) but also the policies that ensure key security. Cryptographic keys that may be stored securely can become vulnerable to dynamic analysis when called into use during runtime if not protected by software-based key security such as white-box cryptography.
  • Where and how keys should be stored: Centralized key storage is a major security risk. If a hacker manages to access a private or root key, they can reverse engineer it to access entire systems. This can even happen with encrypted keys. This is why host platforms often use HSMs.
  • What happens to keys at the end of their lifecycle: When keys are retired, they must be disposed of correctly. Access to old or obsolete key data can allow hackers to reconstruct the key structure and attack a current system. 
  • Revocation of access and deleting of keys: Whether it’s a certificate authority or the administrator of a PKI, cryptographic systems foster trust through constant vigilance over key integrity. This means deleting compromised keys and revoking certificates from those who break compliance requirements.

By establishing clear policies and rules for how cryptographic keys are created and used, the cryptosystem maintains the integrity of the infrastructure to shield against attacks while building the trust of those who are using it. 

What is encryption key management security?

Adherence to these guidelines is just one aspect of good encryption key management. To truly maintain a secure cryptosystem, the protection of the encrypted keys is essential. This includes:

  • Keeping logical access limited: Especially when working with multiple partners in unsecured environments, full access to the logic and algorithms behind a cryptographic system can be compromised, making the entire system vulnerable.
  • Guarding physical access: On-premises servers or devices are potential targets for criminals to steal or access information that would help them to break into a cryptosystem.
  • Restricting user/role access: The number of users and levels of access correlates to cryptographic key safety. While there may be a large number of keys being used in the same cryptographic system, ensuring that access control is well-defined and maintained helps to preserve its integrity.

One of the biggest problems for cryptographic key security is that keys are often not stored securely or become visible during authentication or decryption. To eliminate this risk, Intertrust developed whiteCryption Secure Key Box, an advanced white-box cryptography solution that protects the foundational elements of a cryptographic system, such as encryption, key generation, and dynamic key unwrapping (through import and export). 

Keep your keys secure

whiteCryption Secure Key Box ensures that keys remain ultra-secure and are never revealed in plain form during runtime, at rest, or in transit. It supports any algorithm and works across all platforms.

In tightly regulated industries, cryptographic key protection and data safety are essential to meet compliance requirements and they  should be a primary security priority for all businesses. We go further than other solutions to keep the keys to your data safe.

To learn more about threats to cryptographic keys, strategies and methods for protecting them, and how whiteCryption Secure Key Box can make your encryption key management more secure, read our white paper.

 

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About Prateek Panda

Prateek Panda is Director of Marketing at Intertrust Technologies and leads global marketing for Intertrust’s application shielding and device identity solutions. His expertise in product marketing and product management stem from his experience as the founder of a cybersecurity company with products in the mobile application security space.

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