Encrypted Data Islands: Encryption Keys Are Lost but Not Forgotten

A long time ago, in a place far, far away, there was a small newspaper business that obtained its first computer. This computer had a screen, keyboard, floppy disk drive and printer. The small business spent months feeding customer data into the machine to track subscribers and advertisers and manage accounts receivable.

It was the dawn of a new era. Although encryption was not necessary to protect data at that time, it was the beginning of computer age for small business. The businessman was excited and looked forward to the rewards promised by this new technology. But unbeknownst to the businessman and the vendor, which was a small computer company, the data was being placed on an island from which it would never leave.

The day came when the vendor went bankrupt. The computer still worked, but it provided no way to export data to a replacement system. This represented a ticking clock to the day when the computer would no longer function and the data would be lost. The replacement system would require the business owner to start again, entering all the data and redefining processes and practices.

The best and only option was to print out all the information stored in the computer before the system failed so it could be used as a basis for manually re-entering that data into the new system. This was an experience and a lesson not soon forgotten by the business owner.

Fighting Back Against Encryption Islands

Today, we have many standards for the exchange of information and many methods to exchange that data. The Internet gives us the information superhighway; standard protocols and file formats help make the import and export of data commonplace. This practice is easy — until the data is encrypted.

Encrypted data, in its most general form, is unstructured. When it is encrypted, it looks like random numbers and characters. Without the encryption key, that pile of random characters is meaningless, which is what you want with encryption.

However, if the data, keys and management thereof are not following standards, the data becomes only recoverable by the vendor who developed the system where the data resides. It is a data island from which you cannot escape without additional custom code on behalf of the vendor, additional cost to the businessman and much ill will in the process.

Simply put, you cannot leave the island with the data because the key to the map of where the data is located cannot be retrieved.

The Importance of Encryption Keys

With the trend to exchange organizational data between the premises and the cloud, and the overwhelming desire to keep it encrypted regardless of where it is stored, the need for a cross-platform, standards-based, centralized key management solution becomes paramount to avoiding data islands.

As data moves from the premises to the cloud, it should never need to be decrypted under the keys stored in the key management system on-premises and then re-encrypted with keys in a key management system in the cloud. The data should be able to flow naturally from the premises to the cloud and back, and the keys required to decrypt it should not need to be changed. However, it should be an option for the organization.

Frequently, we see systems that encrypt data where the keys and key management functions are baked into the storage solution. When it comes time to replace the system or migrate data to the cloud, the keys are not exportable through any standard means, if at all. Then the organization needs to decrypt all its data from the old system and re-encrypt it under a new one. This is no small task, especially when petabytes of data may be involved.

So What’s the Solution?

The solution to data islands is standards. Data has standard file formats, and encrypted data should be no different. Most importantly, encryption keys should be stored, independent of the data, in a centralized repository that uses standards for key generation, storage and exchange. Separating and centralizing the function of key management (especially in a hybrid cloud environment) allows organizations to easily move data across ecosystems while still keeping it encrypted and under control using keys to which only they have access.

Another option is to replicate the entire workload — which contains the data, data repository, application and inherent controls — to the cloud. This strategy places more requirements on the workload and its applications (i.e., it needs to work on-premises and in the cloud as well as provide an easy method for synchronizing encrypted data and the associated keys), but it does continue to move in the direction of transparent cloud adoption and hybrid-cloud deployments.

Use Encryption Effectively

Your data should be your data regardless of where or how it is stored. It should always be protected through the use of encryption. However, encryption should never be an impediment to the owner of the data — only to those who wish to steal it.

Proper encryption with a separate but centralized key management solution achieves this objective. He who controls the keys controls the data and proprietary keys, key exchange protocols and key management solutions only impose restrictions on the data owner.

Data is the new gold. We do not want it held hostage on an island that you can never leave.

Please join Walid Rjaibi and myself when we present at InterConnect 2016. We will talk about the history of encryption, market drivers, some basic facts, encryption trends over the last few years and key management solutions from IBM that help customers avoid data islands. Our session (SAD-1013) “Trends in Encryption of Data at Rest: On-Premise and in the Cloud,” on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2016, at 2:30 p.m. in Mandalay Bay South Lagoon B.

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Rick Robinson

Product Manager, Encryption and Key Management

Rick Robinson comes from a diverse background of architecture, development, and deployment of new products and services that employ cryptography in one form or another. He has numerous patents in the area of cryptography and computer security and helped customers in the financial, health, retail, manufacturing, and government sectors. Rick has been an active proponent of cryptography for business – applying standards-based cryptography, key management, PKI, and secure protocols to help business stay competitive in the ever-changing world of data security.