In cybersecurity, encryption is one of the key tools to secure sensitive information against unauthorized access. Nowadays, it's one of the major components of digital data privacy. It's also a word often encountered, yet frequently misunderstood. This leads to the proliferation of misconceptions that cause confusion and steer individuals toward poorly-informed security choices.
Therefore, in this article, we aim to raise awareness about potential encryption misconceptions that could expose organizations to cyber threats and data breaches. We’ll decode the risks of inconsistent encryption practices and highlight the best practices for adopting encryption in daily operations. By learning how to distinguish between myths and facts, you can effectively fortify your online security and avoid costly errors in safeguarding confidential data.
To understand how encryption works, it's essential to grasp the principles of cryptography. This is the science and practice of designing secure communication and information systems. It provides the theoretical foundation and mathematical tools for creating encryption algorithms that protect sensitive information from unauthorized access.
Cryptography follows the four main principles:
Confidentiality. Refers to rules and guidelines, ensuring the information is restricted to specific senders and recipients.
Data integrity. Maintains that a message cannot be modified during the transit between the sender and the intended recipient.
Authentication. Verifying that the data claimed by the user rightfully belongs to them.
Non-repudiation. Assurance that associated parties cannot deny the authenticity or the act of sending a message.
Therefore, encryption is a specific technique within the field of cryptography. It converts plain, readable data into a scrambled, unintelligible form (ciphertext) using an encryption algorithm and key. It can only be decoded to the original form with a decryption key. The primary purpose of encryption is to ensure the confidentiality of data, preventing unauthorized users from accessing the original content.
Encryption involves hashing an arbitrary length value to obtain a fixed-length ciphertext that depends on the algorithm used. Some examples of cryptographic algorithms include Advanced Encryption Standard, Triple DES, Blowfish, and ChaCha20.
The misconception explained
One common misconception about encryption is that it's an ultimate defense against all cybersecurity threats. While encryption does help against various threats, even if the data is stolen, it's not a standalone solution. Here are some things that you should consider:
Encryption only protects data in transit and at rest. Encryption is effective in cases when the data is stored or transmitted. This makes it unreadable to anyone without the decryption key. However, it is vulnerable if the end-point device has been compromised and the data is decrypted for use.
Data encryption is never a standalone solution. Encryption should be combined with other cybersecurity measures like multi-factor authentication, firewalls, regular system updates, and more to create a robust defense against cyber threats. This means using multiple layers of security to protect valuable data and assets, with each layer providing more challenges for attackers to breach the system.
Key management may matter more than an encryption algorithm. It's easy to pick the most complex encryption algorithm for sensitive data and assume it is now protected under nine locks. The problem is that the strength of encryption also depends on the secrecy and security of the keys used to encrypt and decrypt the data. Therefore, proper key management is as important as technological security measures.
The risks of inconsistent encryption practices
Our previous examples show that encryption isn't enough to guarantee data security. What sometimes matters more than cipher algorithm strength is encryption practices.
Inadequate protection of sensitive information
At its core, encryption transforms understandable information, or plaintext, into unintelligible text, or ciphertext. If an organization inconsistently applies encryption, there's a chance that some data will not be adequately protected. This inconsistent protection could be due to only encrypting certain data types, failing to encrypt data in transit, or neglecting to encrypt backup files.
As a result, sensitive information such as intellectual property, customer data, or financial records may be exposed. Malicious actors can exploit this information, leading to financial losses and damage to a company's reputation.
Regulations such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the European Union, the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) in the U.S., and many others, require businesses to take specific steps to protect consumer data, often including encryption. Inconsistent encryption practices can lead to regulatory non-compliance, resulting in potential fines and penalties and further damaging an organization's reputation.
Inconsistency in encryption can lead to compatibility problems. For example, if different encryption algorithms or key lengths are used across different systems or departments within the same organization, it can cause difficulty in data sharing and management. This can lead to inefficiency, potential data loss, or the need for resource-intensive data translation.
Best practices for adoption of encryption practices
Encryption is vital to any cybersecurity strategy as it adds an essential layer of protection for data at rest and in transit. Here are some of the best practices for adopting encryption.
Centralized key management system
Different encryption keys used can present a significant challenge regarding storage accessibility. A centralized key management system allows storing encryption keys separately from the encrypted data, providing an additional layer of security in case of a data breach, and minimizing the risk of compromise.
The centralization of the key management process offers further advantages in terms of processing. While the encryption and decryption operations occur locally where the data resides, activities like storage, rotation, and generation of keys are performed away from the actual data location. This separation streamlines the encryption-decryption process and enhances overall security.
Access and audit logs for encryption keys
Access to encryption keys should be limited only to those individuals who genuinely need them. This control can be established through a centralized key management process, ensuring only authorized users are granted access. Avoid cases when a single user holds exclusive access to the key, as this could lead to problems if the user loses their credentials or if data corruption occurs.
Additionally, comprehensive audit logs maintenance is critical to encryption key management. These logs must meticulously document the complete interaction logs of each key, encompassing its creation, deletion, and usage patterns. Every operation related to these keys should be recorded, including details about who accessed the key and the timestamp of access. This facilitates compliance requirements and enables efficient investigation during a key compromise.
Integration of third-party services
Organizations frequently rely on external devices distributed across their network to perform various functions. Still, these devices often lack seamless interaction with databases. Consequently, choosing encryption methods compatible with the third-party applications they interact with is essential.
Incorporation of third-party APIs entails significant risks like SQL injection, cross-site scripting, denial of service, spoofing, malware code, and others. This makes API security a major concern. To address this issue, it's necessary to use API Management Platforms, providing a range of features like monitoring, analytics, alerting, and life-cycle management.
The principle of least privilege
The principle of least privilege advocates that organizations should grant administrative rights based solely on user roles. This restricts the assignment of such rights to applications and minimizes exposure to internal and external threats. As access is limited through role-based control mechanisms, the potential for harm is reduced.
It's important to note that this principle is not limited to human users. The principle encompasses all interconnected software applications, systems, and devices. For successful implementation, a centralized control system is necessary. It mitigates the risk of "privilege creep" and minimal access levels to human and non-human entities.
Use strong and updated encryption standards
Outdated encryption algorithms are easier to crack because the processing power of computers has dramatically increased. Using robust and up-to-date encryption standards like AES-256 can provide better security. Complex algorithms make it nearly impossible for unauthorized individuals to access the data. This protects sensitive customer information, financial data, trade secrets, and intellectual property.
Use of automation tools
Manual key management not only consumes a significant amount of time but also introduces the risk of errors. This is especially the case when dealing with the scale of large organizations. A more intelligent approach to address this challenge is by implementing automation. For instance, automation can create, rotate and renew keys at specified intervals, proving an effective and prudent practice.
How can NordLayer help?
Encryption is an essential tool in our digital world, providing a robust line of defence against cyber threats. That said, various misconceptions surrounding encryption can undermine its effectiveness. Strong and consistent encryption practices can provide the necessary shield in our interconnected world.
This is also where NordLayer can help. NordLayer establishes connections to a Virtual Private Gateway using OpenVPN, IKEv2/IPsec, and NordLynx protocols that are encrypted with Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) 256-bit or ChaCha20 algorithms. Meanwhile, our single extension for different browsers uses Transport Layer Security encryption for web traffic.
The connections and online browsing can be further secured by enabling features like two-factor authentication, single sign-on, device posture monitoring, ThreatBlock, and DNS filtering.
Most importantly, NordLayer can be set to auto-connect to a Virtual Private Gateway server as soon as an internet connection is detected. This enforces the consistent usage of security tools, as each time an employee turns on a computer, it automatically connects to a Virtual Private Gateway.
Get in touch with the NordLayer team directly to explore innovative data security solutions that make damaging data breaches much less likely.