How to Protect Sensitive Data with FIPS Encryption Algorithms
In today's digital world, personal and sensitive data needs to be handled with care and secured systems that protect it from the prying eyes of hackers.
Encryption is an essential security technology that helps protect sensitive data. However, there is a variety of encryption schemes that use different algorithms, so how can you tell which one is effective? Many cryptographic modules use the FIPS encryption algorithms. Here's why:
What are FIPS Encryption Algorithms?
Issued by the National Institute of Standards & Technology, the nation's federal information processing standards, or FIPs, is a cryptography standard used by federal agencies and the Department of Defense for their IT systems. Essentially, these standards cover the design, development and implementation of cryptographic modules in hardware or software.
At the core of this standard is the FIPS encryption algorithms. Typically, these standards are applied to document processing, the design and implementation of cryptographic modules (e.g., hardware, software, firmware and/or applet,) as well as other technological processes used by non-military federal government agencies or their contractors.
There are four security levels specified in FIPS 140-2, and each level has 11 areas pertaining to the design and implementation of a system's cryptographic design. FIPS 140-2 is the second iteration to this encryption benchmark, representing some important updates to the standards.
A FIPS 140-2 compliant crypto module needs to satisfy the following criteria:
- Cryptographic modules ports and interfaces
- Authentication based on roles and services
- Physical security, including single-chip and multi-chip crypto modules, environmental failure protection and crypto key management
- Operation environment
- Cryptographic key management
- Electromagnetic interface/compatibility (EMI/EMC)
- Design assurance
- Mitigation of other attacks
Why are FIPS Encryption Algorithms Important?
The use of a cryptographic module within a security system helps ensure the confidentiality and integrity of the information protected by the module — and this is accomplished by encoding the data so that it's unintelligible and scrambled for those without a key to decode it. Plus, an encryption protocol is essential for networking and telecommunication systems to transmit information that must be kept secure.
A FIPS-accredited system meets a specific set of requirements designed to protect the cryptographic module, which is used to collect, store, transfer, share and disseminate sensitive but unclassified information. The encryption protects the information from being cracked, altered or tampered with.
Additionally, the standardization of the encryption algorithms prevents the use of unapproved cryptography on sensitive data within the federal government, ensuring the security of confidential governmental information. According to the Federal Information Security Management Act, all federal agencies are required to use FIPS 140-2 compliant systems to ensure all sensitive data is protected using the latest version of a trusted and approved encryption system.
In North America, the Communications Security Establishment Canada and National Institute of Standards and Technology created the cryptographic module validation program, known as CMVP, for certifying such security implementations.
Any vendor from the private sector or open source community that provides IT systems, solutions and services (including cloud applications) to federal agencies and other regulated industries (e.g., financial and healthcare institutions) must meet strict FIPS 140-2 compliance standards.
An IT product or system that attains this accreditation can be deployed or operated by the federal government or its contractors. Otherwise, additional steps need to be taken to demonstrate its security.
Validating and Implementing the FIPS Encryption Algorithms
To be certified for the cryptographic module validation program, cryptographic module vendors must hire independent labs that have completed the National Voluntary Laboratory Accreditation Program to perform cryptographic module compliance and conformance testing.
First, a lab will test the cryptographic algorithm used by the module. The algorithm is tested against the standard of the cryptographic algorithm validation program, and must be designed according to the official algorithm document and implemented in a way that allows for validation testing.
Next, the lab will validate the implementation of the cryptographic algorithm in a software, firmware or hardware cryptographic module. The previously validated cryptographic algorithm must not be modified during its integration into the cryptographic module that's being tested.
Lastly, the vendor will use an NVLAP-accredited laboratory to test the algorithm implementations. Once an algorithm implementation is tested by a lab and validated by NIST/CSEC, it's added to a validation list that identifies the vendor, implementation, operational environment, validation date and algorithm details.
Use a Secure System
Any organization that handles sensitive information should use a secure system for protecting its data, whether it's in use, in transit or during storage.
FIPS encryption algorithms protect sensitive data in devices and communications infrastructure, including cloud applications. It's validated by regulatory bodies and provides the assurance that the encrypted information is secure.
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