Why mission-critical encryption remains a must for IT security

Every business today relies on some technology that can be classified as mission-critical. Mission-critical technology refers to any system whose failure could greatly disrupt or completely cripple business operations. For instance, the core banking system is a mission-critical component of any bank’s operations. Its failure, corruption, or breach could lead to transaction delays and thousands of angry, frustrated customers. No bank can afford such disarray. Keeping mission-critical systems running and secure is therefore crucial as the enterprise’s very survival depends on it. There are plenty of IT security processes, procedures, and technologies that one could use to protect mission-critical technology and data. Nevertheless, of all the tools at an organization’s disposal, mission-critical encryption is the most effective at keeping mission-critical data secure and out of the reach of hackers.

What is encryption?

Encryption refers to the encoding of data to make it inaccessible or hidden to unauthorized persons. The process of encrypting data is relatively straightforward. An encryption key uses an algorithm to encode readable data into indecipherable text or ciphertext. Only a corresponding decryption key can decode the ciphertext into readable information.

Encryption is near-ubiquitous

Thanks to the proliferation of information technology, encryption is all around us even though we often don’t realize it or pay attention to it. Encryption protects your login credentials and financial records when you sign in to an online banking portal. It’s encryption that keeps your phone conversations and messages beyond the reach of eavesdroppers.

Encryption helps protect the identity of dissidents by allowing journalists to securely communicate with sensitive news sources. Not-for-profit organizations can protect their work from hostile governments when working in repressive countries. Encryption keeps power grids and communication networks secure.

If you use a company laptop, chances are that the data is encrypted by BitLocker, TrueCrypt, or similar encryption software. That way, the information remains unusable if the laptop is lost or stolen.

Types of encryption

There are two types of encryption--symmetric and asymmetric.

Symmetric encryption

With symmetric encryption, the decryption and encryption keys are identical. Symmetric algorithms often find application in the encryption of bulk data since they are processed quicker and are easier to implement via an encryption hardware appliance.

The main drawback of symmetric encryption is anyone who stumbles on the key can decrypt the data even when the information isn’t intended for them.

Asymmetric encryption

Asymmetric encryption, on the other hand, uses two distinct but mathematically linked keys. A public key encrypts the data while a private key decrypts it. It can also work in reverse — a private key encrypts the information and a public key decrypts it.

Asymmetric encryption, therefore, gets rid of the exchange of secret keys, ensures public keys can be shared with anyone, and provides the requisite foundation for digital signatures, digital certificates, and public key infrastructure (PKI) as a whole. The primary disadvantage is its slow speed and the greater use of computing power.

Why some organizations aren’t prioritizing mission-critical encryption

Yet, whereas encryption is the strongest, most established, and best-known means of protecting mission-critical data, a surprising number of organizations aren’t assigning as much weight as they should in their overarching enterprise cybersecurity strategy.

Instead, they are opting to prioritize accelerating the speed, capacity, and overall operational performance of their mission-critical systems. Implementing encryption would mean creating several additional steps to everyday data processing that then deteriorates system performance. Encryption may also require a change to workflow design and software configuration. Lastly, they are concerned about the management of encryption of keys and the risk of data loss if a key is lost.

These concerns are legitimate. After all, a business’ primary reason for existence is to generate a profit. So while mission-critical systems must be secured, they must also be readily accessible to legitimate users who have the required authorization.

Getting locked out of a database because the keys that can decrypt the data are lost would be catastrophic for any organization. In fact, losing the decryption keys isn’t much different from permanent data corruption as the outcome is the same — the data becomes unusable and lost. You need a reliable key management tool to secure and maintain the keys that decrypt mission-critical data.

Pixabay

Why mission-critical encryption is needed more than ever

Encryption has always been important for enterprise security but never more than today. Here’s why.

Rise of cloud computing

With the proliferation of cloud computing, the need to encrypt mission-critical data is greater than it has ever been. By moving your servers, applications, and data to the cloud, you effectively surrender their control to the cloud services provider. In addition, data will be constantly moving between the cloud server and end-user devices.

To ensure that attackers don’t intercept data during transmission or access it in storage, businesses must encrypt the information before it’s transmitted then decrypt it once it’s in the hands of an authorized user.

Rules, regulations, and standards

In certain industries, mission-critical encryption isn’t something organizations do at their discretion. Rather, industry laws, regulations, and standards demand it. Examples include industries that handle large quantities of sensitive personally identifiable information (PII) such as financial services and health-care providers.

For instance, all health-care providers in the U.S. are required to adhere to the data protection rules detailed in HIPAA. Financial services providers have to conform to SOX demands. Businesses that process credit card transactions must comply with PCI DSS. Organizations operating in the EU or with EU citizens as customers have the GDPR to contend with.

Noncompliance with these rules, regulations, and standards can attract severe consequences including hefty penalties and, in the case of repeat or egregious violation, revocation of an operating license.

Credibility

SSL encryption was initially considered the preserve of websites that dealt with sensitive personal information such as e-commerce stores and online banking platforms. But since leading Internet browsers like Google Chrome started to flag websites without SSL as insecure, it has become an essential component of web design.

When presented with the option of a secure vs. insecure website, the overwhelming majority of Internet users will go for the former. So other than the more direct benefits of mission-critical encryption we discussed earlier, visitor traffic and search engine results ranking will suffer if your business’ site is not encrypted.

Mission-critical encryption isn’t everything — but it’s a big deal

Of course, enterprise mission-critical IT security is more than just encryption. But mission-critical encryption is certainly a big part of it. Our Internet-saturated world would be far more unsafe if we didn’t have encryption.

Not just any encryption will do though. Mission-critical encryption must be strong enough to resist attack by governments, hackers, and criminals. While there have been a number of high-profile incidents where hackers successfully cracked encrypted data, further scrutiny often reveals weak or nonexistent encryption. You cannot afford weak encryption for your mission-critical systems.

Featured image: Pixabay

Stephen M.W.

Stephen regularly writes about technology, business continuity, compliance and project management. He's worked with companies such as Canva.com, EnergyCentral.com, and Citibank.

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Stephen M.W.

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