The Simple Things Part Two – Encryption

I have often said that encryption is like the anti-virus of twenty years ago, just without Doctor Solomon’s socks (that comment in of itself shows my age and when I first started in IT!). What I mean by that is twenty years ago when viruses first started to appear in their hundreds, anti-virus products started to appear in earnest. Not everyone bought or licensed an anti-virus package because they were expensive and the threat was also somewhat small. When it was licensed in the enterprise it was normally a low cost “detection” package that was rolled out onto the desktop with only a few of the expensive “removal packages” in the IT department to carry out the actual disinfection. Home use of anti-virus was virtually unheard of.

Roll forward nearly two decades and anti-virus is everywhere. It is on your computer when you first buy it, it is on every corporate machine (even the OSX environments) and there are even free versions. Everyone, everywhere has an anti-virus package, and only the most foolhardy or ignorant won’t have one installed (although it won’t take long before a trashed disk from a virus or malware will persuade them!).

This is not unlike the case today with encryption. I have come across many small to medium sized organisations that do not have any kind of encryption on any portable device, let alone their laptops, and home use is virtually non existent amongst my friends and colleagues (my peers in the info sec industry are obviously a little more ahead of the game!)  I do believe we are in the middle of a sea change however, but it is a slow, organic change similar to the anti-virus evolution.

I know there are many “encryption” companies out there that do a basic full disk encryption (FDE) package, but off the top of my head I can only name four:

  1. Symantec (PGP)
  2. TrueCrypt (Open Source)
  3. BitLocker (Microsoft)
  4. FileVault (Apple)

For the average user, and indeed many businesses, that is not a huge choice. Even companies that have Windows 7 and Lion installed, the encryption element itself is not automatically turned on, and with Apple there isn’t even any kind of centralised key management (unless, of course, you wish to trust Apple with the keys to your kingdom).

For me, it is simple; encryption must be a part of the full IT procurement cycle. It needs to be budgeted for in the lifecycle of any computer purchase, and in the case of the enterprise, key management needs to be as normal and as natural as Active Directory management. (That same rigour then needs to be applied to removable media as well). Education in the proper use of it is essential (when a laptop is running or suspended it is effectively unencrypted, when it is switched off it is encrypted), and the inclusion of desktops is essential. After all, hard disks get stolen or sent to the disposal company accidentally without being wiped…

Home use also needs to be targeted – only when encryption capabilities are as ubiquitous as anti-virus will a change occur in the way we use computers both at home, schools and work, because users will demand it. The theft of computers from homes opens up all kinds of issues regarding credit card, password and identity theft.

As with all of the things in this list, encryption is not a panacea, but it is an important tool that needs to become as natural to use as a knife and fork, or perhaps more appropriately, as acceptable as anti-virus. What price must be paid in lost data before encryption becomes the rule, rather than the exception?


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