digital key on a dark background

Encryption, Key Escrow and Cryptographic Key management in the Cloud  

Who controls the keys to your Kingdom? As the world moves forward with the best efforts to function in this new era of Covid, we are forced to address availability of both personnel and physical resources. The Cloud seems like the ideal solution. And in many cases, the Cloud is the ideal solution to this new business challenge. But how do we find comfort and even assurance that our data is secure if our infrastructure is now in the cloud?  

The first checkbox most will validate, before moving to the cloud, is whether the data is in fact encrypted. With a prevalence of check boxes marked “Yes,” encryption is both simple to find and simple to utilize.

Effective duo: Key Escrow and encryption

Now that we have ubiquitous encryption capabilities and ultimately have relegated encryption to a check box of sorts, its more important than ever that we force another check box alongside encryption - Key Escrow. If we demand the utilization of encryption, we must demand and employ Key Escrow.  

Key Escrow is a legal term for ensuring companies can comply with various compliance mandates. This also doubles as a prudent disaster recovery and business continuity strategy. If a key cannot be recalled or re-provisioned, all data associated with that key can be lost. Thus, it remains critical that keys are stored securely in a manner that ensures their integrity and usability in the case of loss.

While encryption can effectively yield protection, encryption does not equate to control. Who controls the keys to your Kingdom? Whoever controls the keys ultimately controls the Kingdom. To validate this critical point, it’s important that we re-evaluate the utilization of encryption.

Encryption techniques: hardware vs software

There are two primary encryption techniques that are even more fundamental than Symmetric vs. Asymmetric. The two primary techniques are hardware vs. software. Acceptable algorithms are both standardized and public. They are not secret. So then, if everyone knows the algorithm, why is encryption effective? The answer is the keys. 
The keys must be kept secret for encryption to remain effective. Thus, we can evaluate whether to use hardware or software. 

1.    If a key exists in software, it can be found and utilized for exploitation. Software encryption, like a locked door, merely keeps honest people remaining honest. 
2.    Hardware encryption ensures that a key is only ever in the clear within the certified confines of a tamper responsive security module. 

The best analogy for understanding the difference is in consideration of your front door. Software encryption is like putting your front door key under your welcome mat. Hardware encryption is like storing your front door key in a bank safe deposit box.
Most reputable cloud solution providers already understand this and employ the use of hardware instead of software. However, this leaves us with the original question: who controls the keys? 

Importance of Key Escrow: who controls the keys to your Kingdom?

Can you simply take your encrypted data and migrate to another provider? If your encrypted keys, otherwise available to you, are commandeered for ransom, can you decrypt your data? Do you have access to your keys? Or, do you simply have access to encrypted versions of your keys? If you only have access to encrypted versions of your keys, how do you obtain your clear keys so that you can access your data?  Chances are, you rely on that service provider to decrypt your key so that you can use it. This is why Key Escrow is of critical importance. Key Escrow will ensure the availability of your keys in an isolated and secure manner.  Whoever controls the keys, controls your kingdom. Key Escrow puts your organization back in control.

With this in mind, its also imperative to understand the difference between possession and control.  Some organizations that thought to secure their own keys by acquiring their own hardware security modules have also learned the distinct difference between possession and control. If a key is stored in a security module that will not release the key, then the manufacturer of the security module is actually in control of your key. So, the question is whether or not you can get to your clear key and use it in an alternative location with an alternate technology. If you can get to your own clear key, then so can somebody else. This is why the discipline of Key Management is so critically important.  

Effective cryptographic key management

Certified standards bodies throughout the world have documented and published reliable techniques based on decades of education and real-world experiences related to effective key management techniques and strategies. Many have devoted entire careers to this discipline. However still, more organizations delegate these responsibilities as “other duties as defined.” This is justifiable because key management should not be a full-time job responsibility. Effective key management should require tenets of split knowledge and dual control with backups. The minimally effective strategy should then necessitate four distinct individuals. Yet, when the task does not justify the salary requirements of one full time individual, employing four full time individuals is exponentially unfathomable.  

Now, you have the predicament. You have chosen to employ the use of encryption to protect your kingdom. You have chosen hardware over software encryption. You are paying for security and business continuity. But now you must choose to impose the responsibility of key management on employees, with other dedicated skill sets, to manage your keys under the umbrella of “other duties as assigned.”  The voluntold employees view this as a distraction and a nuisance, and all too often the discipline of key management is executed as such. Few people are properly trained and experienced to handle cryptographic keys. Employing a professional Key Escrow agent eliminates this predicament.  Should your most critical assets be managed by a voluntold employee or a trained and experienced professional with certified infrastructure to support your requirements and ensure availability?  

If your key is lost or compromised, you have wasted a lot of money or worse yet, lost everything in your Kingdom. So, are you in control of the keys to the Kingdom you have built? If you’re not sure who controls your keys, learn more about the Utimaco Key Exchange & Escrow Service KEES™. Download the Geobridge by Utimaco Professional Services document or contact us today. 

Blog post by Jason Way

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