Contingency Access to Encrypted Data

By | March 23, 2006

Electronic data protection has become a business imperative. At the same time, so has data accessibility. While business requirements and government regulations are driving many organisations to implement new solutions for data security, those same requirements are also demanding that organisations retain timely access to their information—whether for management review or third party audit.

Data encryption solutions remain at the forefront of IT security implementations because they protect the actual data, rather than simply protecting the resource on which it is stored or transferred. The best data encryption solutions are those that balance information protection with on-demand access to that encrypted data for security professionals or other designated individuals within an organisation.

Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) deployments typically include provisions for key recovery. However, many organisations opt for passphrase-based encryption solutions to provide ad-hoc or interim data protection, which generally do not include built-in recovery solutions. This can cause a problem, as any good data security policy must provide both security and accessibility in all computing environments, whether PKI-enabled or not.

Business and Government Requirements for Data Protection and Accessibility

It is no surprise that data recoverability is close behind data protection on information security professionals’ agendas. In the data centre, information must remain accessible even when it stays on hard drives/backup tapes for years, often outliving the data centre manager’s tenure and sometimes even the hardware on which it is stored. On the desktop, the same level of access is demanded. For example, organisations must be able to retrieve encrypted data if a user can’t remember their password, or if there is suspicion of foul play on behalf of the person encrypting data.

In addition to requirements for data protection, regulations mandating data recoverability are also beginning to emerge. Whether for third party audit, access to financial data or management review of how proprietary information is distributed within an organisation, an enterprise must be able to access, in a timely manner, all information that is stored or transferred on its networks, shared with its business partners or copied to removable media.

A few well-known regulations for data protection and/or accessibility are:

EU Data Protection Act—All companies conducting business in the European Union must ensure that personal data is secured against accidental loss, destruction or damage and against unauthorised or unlawful processing. This also applies to any third parties processing data on a company’s behalf.

BASEL II—Named for the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision, Basel II recommends international best practices for how banks handle risk management.

Sarbanes-Oxley—Corporate financial records must be retained for a minimum of seven years and available for access in a timely manner in the event of a third party audit.

The need for data recoverability presents ramifications that are specific to data encryption. Passwords can be lost or certificates can be revoked , leaving behind inaccessible encrypted data. Any encryption solution must provide provisions for administrative data recovery to enable management review or third party audits.

Encrypting Data with Contingency Keys: Providing Security and Accessibility

While security and accessibility may seem like mutually exclusive terms, they represent the crux of any good information security policy. Encrypting files with a contingency key ensures that trusted individuals within an organisation—such as an administrator, CISO, or chief executive—can access all data encrypted within the organisation.

The contingency key is effectively a master key that enables access to all encrypted files. With a contingency key, companies can ensure that the appropriate security administrator and/or management can access valuable and sensitive documents in the event of an audit or for management review. It also protects against unforeseen circumstances, such as the loss of a passphrase, or the need to access encrypted data after an employee has left the company. The contingency key can be used with passphrase-based encryption, is extremely easy to use, and does not require an elaborate instalment. For PKI deployments, the contingency key eliminates the need for a dual key system, thereby removing much of the traditional complexity of key recovery, and reducing interoperability and deployment issues associated with issuing and managing two separate certificates for each user.

How Does Contingency Access Work?

Contingency key access is enabled through a “master” key, which is an organisational credential (an SSL certificate, for example) that enables a private key to be accessed by a trusted individual within an organisation. Each time a file is encrypted by an end user, the contingency key is automatically and transparently included in the recipient list. In other words, every document in the organisation is encrypted in a way that will allow the “master” contingency key to access it, if needed. This can occur either with or without the end user’s knowledge. Administrators can set options so that a contingency key is applied to every encrypted file, only to certain types of documents, or only documents encrypted by a particular group. While administrators will not normally need to access files with a contingency key, in the event of an audit or loss of a password, data can be quickly and easily recovered.

Contingency Key Best Practices

Contingency key solutions that are built into data protection software provide the best way to safeguard sensitive information while at the same time retaining provisions for data recovery, because the contingency key can automatically be applied to every encrypted file without disrupting the normal workflow process. Sensitive information transcends all major computing platforms — including desktop systems, servers and mainframes — and is sent to business partners and third party providers. Thus, it is important to ensure that files encrypted on all these platforms can be accessed. As an example, SecureZIP data protection software from PKWARE provides file encryption with contingency key access for Windows, UNIX, Linux, IBM iSeries, and zSeries platforms. Consistent enforcement of a sound security policy is a fundamental component of an overall solution, and should work integrally with the technology itself to lessen the reliance on end user discretion. With a persistent security solution, one can ensure all of an organisation’s important data is both secure and accessible.

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