5 Things You Need to Know About Encryption Keys
Imagine that you’re an HR manager at a large company. You handle sensitive team members information such as salaries, benefits, and Social Security numbers nearly every day. To protect this personally identifiable information (PII) from unauthorized access, you use an encryption key to encrypt the data before storing it in a human resource information system (HRIS) database.
One day, you receive a request from a payroll processor to access new employees’ salary information. Once you verify the service provider’s identity and ensure they have authorization to view this confidential information, you then use an encryption key to send the salary information and provide the processor a decryption key to access the data. Enjoy a short, animated story on encryption keys at Kitetoons.
In this scenario, the encryption key was critical in protecting sensitive team member information and ensuring that only authorized parties had access. By using encryption keys, you ensure that the information remains secure and confidential.
Encryption keys are an essential element of modern cybersecurity, used to protect sensitive data, whenever shared (“in transit’) or stored (“at rest”), from unauthorized access. By using strong, regularly updated encryption keys, organizations can help to ensure the security of their data and communications.
Here Are Five Things You Need to Know About Encryption Keys:
- There are several different kinds of encryption keys, each with unique features and uses.
Here Are Some of The Most Common Types of Encryption Keys:
- Symmetric Keys: Symmetric keys use the same key for both encryption and decryption. The same key is used to transform the data into an unreadable form and back into its original condition. Symmetric keys are fast and efficient, but they require both the sender and the recipient to access the same key, which can be challenging to manage.
- Asymmetric Keys: Asymmetric keys utilize a shared key for encryption and a personal key for decryption. The shared key encrypts the data, and the private key decrypts it. It means the sender can encrypt the data using the public key, and the recipient can decrypt it using the private key. Asymmetric keys are more secure than symmetric ones; however, because they are unique and contain a large amount of random data, they are more difficult and time-consuming to generate and require more computing power.
- One-time Pads: One-time pads use a randomly generated key to encrypt data. The key is discarded after use. One-time pads are theoretically unbreakable, but they are only practical for some applications due to the large key sizes and the difficulty of securely exchanging the key.
- Hash Keys: Hash keys use a mathematical function to transform data into a fixed-size output known as a hash. The hash is unique to the original data and cannot be reversed to obtain the original data. Hash keys are used to verify data’s integrity rather than encrypt it.
2. Encryption keys protect data from unauthorized access by converting data into a chaotic, unreadable form using a mathematical algorithm.
Encryption keys ensure that only authorized parties with access to the key can read the data. See what Kiteworks has to say about protecting sensitive data, including the use of encryption keys, in its 2023 Forecast Report on cybersecurity.
When an authorized person tries to access encrypted data, the encryption key is used to reverse the process and decrypt the data, turning it back into its original, readable format.
Encryption keys also help organizations comply with industry regulations and standards, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS), which require organizations to protect the sensitive data they process or store. This includes names, email addresses, physical addresses, Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, bank account information, and other PII.
Ultimately, encryption keys are essential in the digital age, where data is often transmitted over the internet and can be vulnerable to interception and unauthorized access. It’s absolutely critical therefore to keep your encryption keys secret and protect them from unauthorized access.
3. There are several ways to keep your encryption keys secret.
- Limit access to encryption keys to a select few people.
- Use multi-factor authentication when accessing encryption keys.
- Regularly change encryption keys.
- Store encryption keys in secure locations and back them up in a secure location.
- Implement regular security reviews to ensure that encryption keys are properly managed and used.
4. There are several methods for generating and managing encryption keys, which you can choose based on your organization’s specific needs and resources.
- Manually Generated Keys: Keys can be manually generated by an administrator or a designated person using a key generator tool. This method requires high security and attention to detail, as the keys must be developed and stored securely.
- Automated Key Generation: Keys can also be generated automatically using a key management system or an encryption software tool. This method is faster and more efficient than manually generating keys, but it requires specialized software and can therefore be more expensive.
- Centralized Key Management: In centralized key management, all of the organization’s keys are stored in a central location and managed by a designated person or team. This method is easier to manage but can be more vulnerable, as there is a single point of failure.
- Distributed Vital Management: The organization’s keys are spread across multiple locations and managed by various people. This method is more secure but can be more complex to manage.
5. You should regularly update and rotate your encryption keys.
Encryption keys should be regularly updated and turned for a number of security reasons. First, encryption keys provide an extra layer of protection for data. By regularly updating and turning the keys, organizations can ensure that even if someone were to gain access to the key, the data will still be secure. Second, new encryption keys can help prevent anyone from identifying previously encrypted data. Third, regularly updating and turning encryption keys can also contribute to maintaining the integrity of the data, as outdated keys may become compromised over time.
Some industries and organizations have regulatory requirements that actually mandate the regular updating and rotating of encryption keys. By following these requirements, you can ensure that your organization complies with relevant regulations.
By regularly updating and rotating your encryption keys, you can help to ensure the security of your data and communications and protect them from potential threats leading to unauthorized access. It’s crucial therefore to establish an essential encryption key management process and follow it consistently to ensure that your keys are regularly updated and rotated.
Conclusion: By understanding the basics of encryption keys and how they work, you can take the necessary steps to protect your sensitive data and communications. By using strong, regularly updated encryption keys and adequately managing them, you can help ensure the data your organization generates, stores, and shares is protected at all times.
Magdalena Polka is a Business Solution Designer and an Information Technology / Project Management consultant and author with over 15 years of software development, management and project management experience.