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Understanding the Role of Hardware Security Modules in Symmetric Key Encryption

Organizations face an ever-present risk of data breaches as digital transformations continue to flourish in the business scape. Encryption plays a critical part in mitigating business risks and keeping data safe. Symmetric encryption is typically the top choice for encrypting and decrypting electronic information.

Symmetric encryption is a secure means for protecting data. However, its infrastructure still needs an extremely secure and trusted environment to perform its cryptographic operations. Hardware security modules (HSMs) play a crucial role in providing the root of trust and secure environment needed to protect all cryptographic processes, including generating, managing, and protecting keys used to encrypt and decrypt confidential data.

Why Symmetric Encryption?

There are two types of encryption, symmetric and asymmetric. Symmetric encryption uses just one key, a secret key, to encrypt and decrypt electronic data. Both parties involved in an electronic communication utilizing symmetric encryption must exchange the singular key to decrypt the data.

Symmetric encryption works differently from asymmetric encryption because it uses the one "secret" key to perform its cryptographic operations. Asymmetric encryption utilizes a pair of keys, a public key used to encrypt data and a private key to decrypt data.

Symmetric encryption is an older technology. But it is more efficient and faster than asymmetric encryption, which affects performance and puts stress on networks because of data size and increased CPU uses.

Examples of symmetric encryption include:

  • AES
  • DES
  • IDEA
  • Blowfish
  • RC4
  • RC5
  • RC6

Uses of Symmetric Encryption

Symmetric cryptography is used for such processes as:

  • Random number generation or hashing
  • Validation of message senders
  • Payment card transactions
  • Key generation, management, and protection

HSMs can be used to protect these and other cryptographic processes that require a higher level of security that a typical network cannot fully provide.

HSMs Offer the “Trust” Symmetric Encryption Needs

Despite the security benefits that symmetric encryption provides, it requires a strong and secure infrastructure to keep keys and data secure. Vulnerabilities in the network or communications via or to questionable environments do not provide the trusted environment required by a symmetric encryption infrastructure. A trusted environment is one that is kept safe from malware, viruses, exploits, and unauthorized access. This is what a hardware security module (HSM) provides.

An HSM is a trusted network computer where the cryptographic processes that symmetric keys use can be kept secure and used virtually or in a cloud environment. HSMs are designed to protect cryptographic keys, including symmetric keys, and are trusted because they:

  • Keep cryptographic material hidden and protected at all times.
  • Provide an additional layer of security by storing the decryption keys separate from the encrypted data, ensuring that encrypted data is not exposed even if a data breach occurs.
  • Strengthen encryption practices across the key lifecycle from key generation through to storage, distribution, back-up, and finally, to destruction.
  • Are built with specialized, secure hardware, resistant to hacking attempts.
  • Run on a secure operating system.
  • Has limited access through a strictly controlled network interface.
  • Enable scalability and multi-tenancy of the security architecture when properly conceived.

Data security should be a priority for every organization. For businesses of all sizes, building security from the ground up is critical, and adopting HSMs as a root of trust can help organizations limit liability from breaches and help to comply with data privacy regulations.

References: 

Blog post by Dawn Turner.

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