Cryptographic keys play a vital role in protecting sensitive info, preventing data breaches, and complying with regulations. Unfortunately, a lost or stolen key can lead to costly losses of systems and data, which is why every security-aware company should enforce robust key management protocols.

This article is an introduction to encryption key management. Read on to learn about the basic concepts surrounding encryption, the value of proper key management, and how to keep data safe throughout a key’s lifecycle.

Key management intro

What Is Encryption Key Management?

Encryption key management is a set of practices and rules that ensure the safe use of cryptographic keys. Proper management ensures a key stays safe throughout its lifecycle, from generation and use to storing and deletion.

cryptographic key is a file that contrails a string of letters and numbers that can encrypt and decrypt data when processed by a crypto algorithm. The main goal of key management is to keep these files away from unauthorized users and systems.

Losing a key to a malicious party can have grave consequences, so a robust encryption key management strategy must include:

  • Instructions on how employees should manage keys at different stages of existence.
  • Security measures that prevent unauthorized physical and virtual access to the server storing the keys.
  • Policies and systems for key functions.
  • Role-based controls that limit access and define who and when can access the keys.
  • Instructions on how different departments should interact and coordinate with keys.

A business can approach key management in three different ways:

  • Decentralized: End-users or employees are responsible for key management, and the company does not handle governance.
  • Distributed: Each team or department has a separate key management protocol while the business provides basic guidance.
  • Centralized: A business-wide policy dictates how all staff members and departments use keys.

The safest approach is to set up a centralized strategy and achieve complete control over how teams store, share, and use private keys.

Why is Key Management Important?

Careful management of keys is vital to the effective use of cryptography in your cybersecurity strategy.

A key is similar to a safe combination: no safe can stop the thief if a perpetrator knows how to unlock the vault. Similarly, poor key management can make even the best encryption algorithm worthless. A compromised key allows an attacker to:

  • Convert encrypted data back to its original, plaintext form.
  • Create a phishing website that impersonates your official website.
  • Take the entire security infrastructure down.
  • Act as a privileged user and access different systems and databases.
  • Sign apps and documents in your name.

Proper key management guarantees high levels of security around encrypted data and ensures:

  • That only authorized users can read or access data.
  • Safe transfers of data across the Internet and private networks.
  • That different cyberattack types cannot easily spy, infect, or spread through your systems.

The use of encryption also helps comply with some regulations, such as HIPAA or PCI.

Encryption key management

How Does Key Encryption Work?

Encryption allows us to exchange data while keeping the contents unreadable to everyone except the sender and the recipient. Exchanging encrypted data is a two-step process:

  • First, algorithms scramble data into a string of seemingly random characters (ciphertext). The sender then forwards the ciphertext to the recipient.
  • Once the receiving party gets the ciphertext, a decryption key descrambles the massage back to the original plaintext form.

Throughout this process, the information is unreadable to anyone who does not possess the descrambling key. Encryption is fully automatic and the two parties exchanging data do not have to code and decode messages. Key actors and operations in the encryption process are:

  • The data encryption key (DEK): An encryption key that encrypts and decrypts the data.
  • The key encryption key (KEK): A key that encrypts and decrypts the DEK.
  • Key management system (KMS): A system that stores and runs the key management software.
  • Key management API (KM API): An API that retrieves encryption keys from a server to a client.
  • A certificate authority (CA): A third-party entity that authenticates users and systems via digital certificates.
  • Transport layer security (TLS): A cryptographic protocol that protects data moving over a computer network.

You can use encryption to protect data both at rest and in motion:

  • Encryption at rest: This encryption type protects stored data. If hackers break into a database, they cannot decipher information without a key.
  • Encryption in transit: This encryption type secures data on the move and prevents interception or tampering. Typical examples are emails, text messages, and web data.