Overview: What hardware security modules do for data encryption

It is not only in a high-security context that the protection of sensitive data is paramount. If you want to be on the safe side when dealing with cryptographic keys and application environments, you should rely on so-called hardware security modules (HSM). In the blog, we reveal the advantages of this and what you should look out for.

The current trend toward remote work and home offices is one of the major challenges companies face in the field of data security. The appropriate encryption is essential here. Only encryption can provide reliable protection against data theft and espionage or compromised data – but the keys must be managed absolutely securely. This is where hardware security modules (HSMs) come into play. HSMs are standalone devices that can perform a variety of cryptographic operations. Depending on the type, they serve different purposes. For example, they are often used to generate and store keys, but they are also used to provide signing and encryption algorithms. They provide high-performance cryptographic services for enterprise applications and ensure data integrity for business-critical processes. Often, the modules are plug-in cards, NFC tokens, or smart cards that allow secured devices to connect to the host. However, network appliances or server variants that can be activated directly via TCP/IP and thus connected to the network are not uncommon, especially in data centers.

Where are HSMs used?

The range of applications for hardware security modules is enormous. The devices are used wherever personal data needs to be protected to a particularly high degree or where flawless digital identification is required. For example, they are included in security tokens and smart cards, are built into cryptographic transaction systems in banks (e.g., in ATMs) and SSL servers, or we also encounter them in everyday work in key certification and time stamp systems.

What are the advantages of HSM?

The entire cryptographic lifecycle of a key takes place in the hardware security module – from generation to management and storage to ultimate deletion. Logging of all interactions provides a detailed audit trail to which companies can refer. But not only cryptographic keys can be managed with an HSM: it is also possible to generate and process digital signatures or secure entire application environments.
Another advantage is that only authorized persons have access to the devices. This means that all cryptographic keys remain protected from unauthorized access. They also have various signing and encryption algorithms such as AES, DES or IDEA for generating new keys. Whereas software-based storage of cryptographic keys is not subject to any standards and thus always involves certain security risks, in the case of hardware security modules the keys never leave the physical devices in an unprotected form. HSMs thus contribute significantly to the data protection efforts of companies and increase security enormously.

What should HSMs do?

Depending on the area of application, companies place different demands on hardware security modules. However, there are some essential requirements that such a module must fulfill, which go beyond the secure execution of common cryptographic functions. For example, the device must not only secure the cryptographic application environment in the company, but also protect the software environment against manipulation and the import of third-party programs. In addition, all keys must also be reliably protected against attacks on the module’s hardware (so-called “tamper resistance”). Companies must also pay attention to this when selecting a suitable HSM. It should also be ensured that the risk of a side-channel attack is as low as possible.

Securely encrypted data is the be-all and end-all

Ultimately, hardware security modules are just another important component in a company’s security concept. Not only due to legal regulations such as the DSGVO, but above all to secure their own business success, responsible handling of their own data is essential for companies. Hardware security modules can make an important contribution to this, and with solutions such as the epiKshare Suite, they can even be integrated into file sharing processes for authentication purposes. This means that files are not only securely encrypted, but can also be shared with third parties without hesitation. More information about data encryption with epiKshare can be found here.

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