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What is an encryption key?

Encryption is a word that is thrown around the world of information technology quite often. Most business owners might respond to the title question with the sentiment of “I’m not sure what it is exactly, but I feel like I need it.” Most people know that encryption involves keeping data safe, but how does the process work?

Encryption is the process of scrambling data, making it useless for anyone who accesses it without the means to make sense of the scrambled data. This is why we use an encryption key. Depending on the type of encryption used, there may be one or two keys involved.

Symmetric algorithm - Also known as secret key encryption, this kind of encryption uses one key to both encrypt and decrypt data. This means that this form of encryption is very efficient, and so it is often used to encrypt large amounts of data. However, since there is only one key used for both processes, it is imperative to the security of the encrypted data that this key remains in your possession.

Asymmetric algorithm - This variety of encryption is also known as public/private encryption, as there are two keys involved. One key (usually the public one, which means it can be shared) is used to encrypt data, while the other (usually private) key is used to decrypt it later. Asymmetric encryption is widely accepted to be more secure, as the key that can decrypt the data after it is encrypted is not shared.

Encryption keys are used for many different objectives. Different businesses and industries require different levels of security, so it is important to take this into account.

So what are the different types of encryption keys?

Data encryption keys - This is the form of encryption that most people are familiar with, as it simply protects data from being read by anyone who isn’t authorized to see it. In this case, the authorization to view the data comes with possession of the data encryption key. These keys frequently are held onto past their crypto-period, if not indefinitely. It is helpful to note that these encryption keys are usually a data file on your computer itself, accessed by the encryption software.

Authentication keys - An authentication key is used to confirm that the data contained has not been altered during any part of the process of sending from one user to another or one machine to another. This is useful if you need to send or receive data in an unaltered state to prove its integrity.

Digital signature keys - This is effectively the same kind of key as an authentication key, just taken one step further and applied specifically to one’s digital signature. A digital signature is far more authentic and secure than a physical signature when using this kind of encryption. The digital signature key is what verifies the authenticity of the signature.

Root keys - A Public Key Infrastructure hierarchy is used for authentication and digital signatures, and the root key is the highest key in the hierarchy. Since it is such an important key to keep secured and will often be around for much longer than other specific use keys, a hardware security module, or HSM, is often used to help protect it.

Master keys - A master key is one that is used to encrypt multiple other keys, which means it has to be very secure (again using an HSM) as well as long-lasting, if not permanent.

Key encryption keys - These keys are used to securely transport other secret encryption keys, which means that they are typically long-lasting and do not change often.

All of these types of keys are used to support encryption to keep business data safe. If you are interested in learning more or inquiring how this could be useful in your business, give us a call!

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