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Townsend Security Data Privacy Blog

FIPS-140 Certified Encryption and the "Aha" Moment

Posted by Patrick Townsend on Jun 16, 2011 8:28:00 AM

I believe that every individual or company that attempts to bring encryption products to market experiences an “Aha” moment. This is the moment when you realize how very difficult it is to get encryption right, and how many ways there are to get it wrong.

It’s not just that encryption is complicated (it is; to a non-mathematician the algorithms can be mind-boggling). It’s that there are so many aspects to doing an encryption implementation correctly that the likelihood of errors is high even for the best-intentioned and most knowledgeable developers. This “Aha” moment can be dramatic. It happens when you see all of your limitations clearly and you know that you are facing a crucial challenge.

However, what a person or company does after this “aha” moment says everything about their character and the quality of the products they bring to market.

NIST EncryptionWhen I had this “Aha” moment years ago, I realized that our company had to radically change how we approached the development of our encryption and key management products. I knew that we had to step up to much higher standards, and change how we looked at our own products. But where does one go to figure out how to do encryption right? Fortunately, our company had several good enterprise customers who helped point the way. Enterprise security architects directed us to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) web site and the FIPS-140 certification process. The NIST and FIPS-140 certification outline the proper standards and best practices for encryption, decryption, key management, and logging.  So began the complete transformation in how we bring Townsend Security encryption products to market.

It wasn’t long, however, before the “Aha” moment was followed by an “Oh no” moment.

It quickly became clear that there was a large body of published guidance on the standards and best practices for encryption and key management. This stuff would fill a small library. And it was intense reading. This was not “Dick and Jane” beginning level stuff. It assumed that you started at a pretty advanced point in your knowledge of encryption and cryptographic module implementation. Not only are there published standards, but there are well-defined test and certification protocols.  And these tests were not going to be easy to pass. These tests are only conducted by a small number of certified labs (See NVLAP), the tests are detailed, complex, and designed to detect even the most minute errors that could cause encryption algorithms to fail.  Certification also means that you must undergo a stringent review of the encryption source code and your development practices.

This was the “Oh no” moment. This process was going to hurt.  It was going to be expensive, time consuming, and mentally taxing. And (at least initially) it was going to slow down our release schedule and increase our time to market.  There was also the concern that some competitors would rush to market faster with whiz-bang features that impressed customers in the demonstration process, but were of less importance to encrypting data.

This was going to be a huge undertaking.  I huddled with our development team. I huddled with our sales and marketing team. I took a long walk.

It was clear to me that this was a decision that would define who Townsend Security would be as a company, and it would illuminate how we really feel about taking care of our customers.  Were we really committed to doing security right and providing complete solutions to our customers?  Or were we willing to scrape along the bottom with inferior products that could be sold to less sophisticated customers?

FIPS certifiedWell, you already know how this came out. In the end I could come to no other conclusion.  We would either do the right thing, or get out of the security market altogether. We’re still in, so you know that we made that commitment and investment in NIST certification of our correctly implemented encryption solutions. We did learn a lot about encryption development processes and best practices. And I must say our products are so much better for it.

As you know, we made a substantial investment in the certification effort (we still do), and we do have some competitors, especially in the IBM System i (AS/400) marketplace, who claim to have jumped ahead of us.  But I know how dramatically our certification efforts improve our products, and I know how much better off our customers are because of it. Customers who have a NIST certified solution will be protected from harsh regulations, those who put their trust in non-certified solutions will find themselves at the mercy of ever evolving regulating standards.  As these compliance regulations evolve and incorporate standards and independent assessment in their guidelines, our customers will benefit from our efforts. And as the attacks on our protected data get ever more sophisticated, we will see poorly crafted encryption and key management products easily broken with heartbreaking losses for the companies involved.

So, I am a converted believer in the independent certification process.  No one believes that independent NIST certification is a guarantee of perfect security. But no one who has been paying attention believes anymore that a security product should be trusted without it.  We believe the encryption and key management you trust to protect your entire Enterprise database should be equally (if not more stringently) proven and validated.  Click here download a free 30-day evaluation of our NIST-certified AES encryption - available for all Enterprise platforms (Windows, UNIX, Linux, IBM i, IBM z).


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Topics: Encryption, NIST, FIPS-140

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