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Townsend Security Data Privacy Blog

Encryption vs. Tokenization: Which is Best for Your Business?

Posted by Luke Probasco on May 10, 2011 7:42:00 AM

tokenizationEncryption and tokenization are the two leading technologies used to protect sensitive data from loss and subsequent breach notification and legal liability. Organizations who try to meet compliance regulations struggle to understand when to use strong encryption and when to use tokenization to protect information. Many organizations will find both technologies helpful in different places in their IT infrastructure.

Encryption protects data by obscuring it with the use of an approved encryption algorithm such as AES and a secret key. Once encrypted, the original value can only be recovered if you have the secret key. The use of strong encryption keys makes it impossible, from a practical point of view, to guess the key and recover the data. Almost all compliance regulations provide a safe harbor from breach notification if sensitive data is encrypted.

Encryption - Protecting Sensitive Data Where It Lives

Encryption is a mature technology with a recognized body of standards, independent certification of vendor technologies, and it undergoes continual scrutiny by the professional cryptographic community. Organizations that deploy professional encryption solutions that have been independently certified (NIST certification) enjoy a high level of confidence in the protection of their data assets.

Tokenization - Protecting Sensitive Data with Subsitution

Tokenization works by substituting a surrogate value for the original sensitive data. This surrogate value is called a “token”. The token value does not contain sensitive information, it replaces it, maintaining the original value.  There is one and only one token value for any given original value. For example, a credit card number 4111-1111-1111-1111 might be assigned the token value of 1823-5877-9043-1002. Once this token is assigned it will always be used when the original value would have been used.

Combining Encryption and Tokenization

For most organizations there will be appropriate uses for both encryption and tokenization. Encryption will be the right solution for one set of applications and databases, and tokenization will be the right solution for others.  The appropriate technology will be decided by each organization’s technical, compliance, and end-user staff working together.

In order to ease the development and compliance burden, organizations may wish to source encryption and tokenization solutions from the same vendor. There are many overlapping technologies in both encryption and tokenization, and you will probably want a common approach to both.

If you would like to learn more about tokenization, we recently presented a webinar titled "Tokenization & Compliance: 5 Ways to Reduce Costs and Increase Security." 

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Topics: Compliance, Encryption, tokenization

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