What's FIPS Encryption Algorithms And How They Protect Sensitive Data
Encryption is an essential security technology that helps protect sensitive data. However, there is a variety of encryption schemes that use different algorithms, how can you tell which one is effective?
Many cryptographic modules use the FIPS encryption algorithms. Here's why:
What Are FIPS Encryption Algorithms?
FIPS stands for Federal Information Processing Standards. It's issued by the National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST) and is a cryptography standard used by US federal agencies and the DoD (Department of Defense) community for their IT systems. It covers the design, development, and implementation of cryptographic modules, and underlying algorithms, in hardware or software.
FIPS Encryption Algorithms is a set of standards 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 the FIPS 140-2 standard and each level has 11 areas pertaining to the design and implementation of a system's cryptographic design. A FIPS 140-2 compliant crypto module needs to satisfy the following criteria:
- Cryptographic modules ports and interfaces.
- Authentication based on roles and services.
- Finite state module.
- Physical security including single-chip and multi-chip crypto module, environmental failure protection, and crypto key management.
- Operation environment.
- Cryptographic key management.
- Electromagnetic interface/compatibility (EMI/EMC).
- Self tests.
- 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. An encryption protocol is essential for networking and telecommunication systems to transmit information that needs to be kept secure.
A FIPS accreditation means that a 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 (SBU) information. The encryption protects the information from being cracked, altered, or tampered with.
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 FISMA (Federal Information Security Management Act), all federal agencies are required to use FIPS 140-2 compliant systems.
In North America, the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) and the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) created the Cryptographic Module Validation Program (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 be FIPS 140-2 compliant.
An IT product or system that attains the accreditation can be deployed or operated by the US 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 by the CMVP, cryptographic module vendors hire independent labs that have completed the National Voluntary Laboratory Accreditation Program (NVLAP) 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 (CAVP), formed by the CMVP. The algorithm 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 (OE), validation date, and algorithm details.
In today's digital world, 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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