Lock These Three Doors to Help Protect Your Data

Willie Sutton, the infamous bank robber, had a talent for wry understatement.

Asked why he robbed banks, he purportedly replied, “Because that’s where the money is.”*

If Willie had been born in the 1980s instead of in 1901, he would be a cybercriminal looking to steal data. Why? Because that’s where the money is.

Intellectual property, trade secrets, sensitive customer information, user credentials, patient information—all of these are forms of data that are as valuable as money in the bank. And the risks associated with losing or failing to protect that data are far greater than those associated with cash. And just like cash, data is at risk when it’s at rest, in motion, or in use.

Here are some tips for approaching data protection with the three states as a guide.

Data at Rest

Data is at rest when it is not being accessed, such as when it is stored on a physical or logical medium. Examples include files sitting on a flash drive or on archived magnetic tapes in the corporate warehouse.

Despite recent sensational headlines, encryption still works well to protect data at rest. Encryption applications such as full disk encryption provide very strong data protection when coupled with strong random number generation, the right encryption algorithms with robust keys, and intelligent acceleration such as Intel® Advanced Encryption Standard New Instructions (Intel® AES-NI) to make the encryption unobtrusive to the user.

Application owners and IT administrators are often concerned about an “encryption tax”—a lag in application performance caused by CPU cycles consumed in complex cryptographic processing. If that performance tax is too great, user productivity and application efficiency suffers, making encryption an unattractive option. With intelligent acceleration of some cryptographic operations, this tax can be dramatically decreased so that encryption can be more widely deployed.

Data in Motion

Data is in motion when it is moving between applications, traversing a network, or moving between networks.

Data in motion can be protected by protocols such as TLS, SSL, and IPsec, which encrypt data packets for secure transportation and decryption by intended parties. Like a really thick security envelope for an important letter, these protocols provide a wrapper that helps prevent unauthorized access to your data as it’s in motion. Use of Intel instruction enhancements such as Intel AES-NI and Intel® Advanced Vector Extensions (Intel® AVX) can help these protocols be more efficient, which can in turn help your data centers run more cost effectively. You can and should complement these protocols with data loss prevention software or appliances that monitor network traffic to help prevent unauthorized transmission of sensitive data.

Data in Use

Data is in use when it is being actively read or written by an application, and this is its most vulnerable state. When in use, data sheds its protective layers so it can be used and changed.

When living in an apartment building with other tenants, your apartment and its contents are only secure if the building manager keeps unauthorized people out and if the windows and doors are secure. If someone leaves a door or window unlocked (as with an application vulnerability), or if the building manager hires a cleaning crew who are actually crooks (like malware that’s injected into a system service DLL), then you might as well leave your apartment door unlocked. Data in use can be just as unprotected and just as exposed to risk.

You can establish an environment in which only trusted applications can access your data. This trusted execution environment is like a safe inside your apartment, to which you have the only key. In addition, like checking your apartment for things out of place or missing, a trusted execution environment can be measured and known to be secure, such as with Intel® Trusted Execution Technology (Intel® TXT), so you can be confident that your data is protected even when in use.

Data Protection Starts with Encryption

Your connected business depends on your commitment to keeping data both safe and available to your business partners. The days when you might protect your data by locking up paperwork in a filing cabinet are long gone. How can security practitioners protect valuable corporate data in a time of increasing risk? Any answer starts with encryption. Apply it systematically to data throughout its lifecycle, and you’ll be on a path to foiling our modern day Willie Suttons.

*Thanks to Wikipedia, which also reports that this exchange is probably apocryphal. Oh well. It still makes a good story.