Cast encryption in major role for secure data

The lowdown

What is encryption? Encryption comes in two basic forms: symmetric encryption, which uses a single key known to everyone who needs access to the data; and asymmetric encryption, which uses a pair of keys to encrypt data.

What standards use symmetric encryption? Advanced Encryption Standard, Data Encryption Standard and Triple DES are examples of symmetric encryption. They are commonly used for data passing over networks and for data on storage devices to prevent unauthorized access to data.

What uses asymmetric encryption? Asymmetric encryption usually is used for sending secured data from one individual to another, such as in an e-mail message, or as a means of identifying an individual or server, as in digital certificates and digital signatures.

What is a public-key infrastructure? A system that uses digital certificates, which contain public and private encryption keys to identify and authenticate an individual to other individuals, software systems, portals and the network.

Must-know info? Encryption is increasingly tied to network infrastructure and computer applications. Look for PKI to be integrated in the authentication systems of major operating systems. PKI also will be linked to biometrics.

The first step in keeping information locked away from prying eyes is to make it safe in transit across the networks that connect users. That means using encryption suitable to the type of information being transmitted.

There are a wealth of encryption standards available to government agencies. But managing encryption can be a bigger challenge than picking the right technology.

Encryption management is a problem that comes in multiple flavors. Encrypted storage files or whole storage devices might keep a single encryption key for the entire lifetime of the data within it. Point-to-point encryption systems, such as encrypted IP networks or remote-office virtual private network connections, share a single key for a fixed period of time that has to be distributed securely to all points on the network each time it is changed.

And systems that control access to data at an individual level, such as public-key infrastructure systems, require the management of thousands, or even millions, of pairs of encryption keys, a task that becomes even stickier when those keys are issued by different organizations sharing access to the same data.

Key distribution is becoming an integrated part of the management systems for network and application infrastructure, such as network management systems. Cisco Systems Inc.'s CiscoWorks, for example, uses the Internet Key Exchange protocol to distribute the Advanced Encryption Standard and other encryption keys across routed VPNs.

This kind of integration eventually will make encryption a transparent part of IT, and make it easier for agencies to collaborate securely.

Kevin Jonah, a Maryland network manager, writes about computer technology.

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