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On Encryption Keys - Part 1 - What Is a Key?

January 25, 2015 Ray Potter

Last week I met with a customer to help solve, among other things, some challenges around key management and key lifecycles. I thought I’d kick off a blog series on keys: what they are, their generation, use, recommended strength, etc.

First, let’s briefly address what a key is: a key is what protects your data. It’s a (hopefully!) secret parameter fed into an encryption algorithm to obfuscate data in a way that only someone with the same key can decrypt the data and read it as intended.*

Here’s how I explained it to my 10-year-old daughter:

Think about the door to our house. When the door is locked, only someone with a key can get inside. (Ok sounds more like authorization but stay with me). When inserted and turned, the key hits the pins that triggers the locking mechanism and unlocks the door. That key is the only key that can lock and unlock our door.

While quite elementary in my mind, it’s a relatively good example of the value and importance of the key lifecycle, which I briefly discussed with my daughter after she asked the following questions:

  • What if someone copies the key?
  • What if our neighbors lose our spare key?
  • How do we know if someone else used our key?
  • Does someone else’s key work in our lock?

All are relevant questions in relation to cryptography as well. Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll talk about how keys should be generated, ideal key sizes, and general key management issues and best practices.

Fair warning: there is no single, correct answer. We’ll use this series to address dependencies and variables such as environments, data sensitivity, and threat models.

*This is known as symmetric encryption, where one key encrypts and decrypts data. In asymmetric encryption a public key is used to encrypt data and only its associated private key can decrypt the data.

Ray Potter

Ray Potter

Ray Potter is the Founder of SafeLogic, which was spun off from his previous venture, the Apex Assurance Group consulting firm. He brings over 20 years of security and compliance experience, including leading teams at Cisco and Ernst & Young, to the operations team at SafeLogic. Ray loves playing guitar and flying airplanes.

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