Military encryption's going open

Emerging technologies aim to secure data on a rapidly growing number of platforms.

The future of military encryption is growing less cryptic. Encryption technology is advancing at a steady pace and becoming an essential element in a rapidly expanding number of systems, from portable storage devices to the cloud.

"From a defense perspective, proprietary encryption algorithms are being replaced with open, standards-based algorithms that promote interoperability and are less cumbersome to manage in terms of physical controls," said Eric Warden, vice president of national security solutions for Accenture Federal Services, a management consulting firm based in Arlington, Va. "This has opened the door for commercial solutions to replace government-developed solutions, creating cost savings for the federal government moving forward."

Suite B Cryptography

"One of the most promising new encryption technologies is Suite B cryptography," said Karl Fuchs, vice president of technology at iDirect Government Technologies, a military communications technology provider located in Herndon, Va. "Suite B, as the name implies, is a suite of cryptography protocols that the National Security Agency is working very diligently with international standards organizations to have adopted."

Suite B provides protection for data classifications ranging from “For Official Use Only” (FOUO) to “Top Secret” and can be quickly adjusted to meet different security parameters. "Such a system would allow great flexibility in the exchange of information between DOD, first responders, NGOs [non-government organizations] and coalition partners," Fuchs said.

The NSA and the Defense Department are defining mobility strategies centered around strong commercial encryption," said Ray Potter, CEO of SafeLogic, an encryption technology developer. "Suite B algorithms are protecting incredibly sensitive data, which historically fell to uber-secret algorithms that aren't known outside the intelligence world."

Self-Encrypting Drives and RoTs

Promising to make secure data accessible in a wider number of places are self-encrypting drives (SEDs), a new generation of hard disk and solid-state drives featuring built-in cryptographic engines. The units are designed for easy installation inside mobile systems, desktop computers and servers.

"The cryptographic keys never leave the drive, so they require minimal management," Warden said. "The built-in crypto engine also means little to no performance degradation as compared to a standard drive." Warden said that SEDs also outperform drives utilizing software-based full-disk encryption.

SEDs are one type of an emerging technology known as Roots of Trust (RoTs)—systems and system components designed from the outset to be completely trustworthy. RoTs are helping to make encryption-based security an integral attribute rather than an optional add-on.

"[RoTs] are typically chip-based security mechanisms that can provide features such as key storage and secure boot," Warden said. "Most PC platforms currently ship with RoTs, such as Trusted Platform Modules (TPMs), but only recently have operating systems provided access to these chips to third-party application developers." This development is enabling applications to incorporate stronger data-encryption techniques, specifically in terms of key management. "RoTs are also expected to show up in mobile platforms in the near future," Warden predicted.

Virtual Machine and Hypervisor Encryption

Todd Moore, vice president of federal products at SafeNet, a data encryption company based in Belcamp, Md., observed that DOD's growing reliance on virtual machine and hypervisor technologies requires the use of high-performance encryption. Moore said that object-based encryption—based on files, videos, pictures or snippets of unstructured data—can meet DOD's need to balance speed and security by exerting a minimal performance impact while providing scalable, self-renewable enterprise key management and the high-capacity data storage encryption required for use in multi-tenant environments.

"Like private-sector organizations, the government is turning to virtualization as a way to maximize the value of IT hardware investments," said Moore. "Malicious attackers are targeting virtual machines and the hypervisor itself, and cutting-edge encryption is needed to protect these elements from attack."

Yet managing encryption in massive enterprise environments is a very complex task. If poorly handled, large-scale encryption can create enormous risks, Moore said. "The need for organizational data-sharing is driving [a need for] encryption technologies that scale to support large-size organizations through enterprise-wide key-management and federated authentication capabilities," he said. "Enterprise key-management technology helps large organizations easily enable and disable, rotate and destroy keys in a coordinated manner."

Growing amounts of "big data" also pose a security challenge that only high-performance encryption can address. "With the copious amounts of sensitive data being collected by government organizations, it’s imperative that they efficiently encrypt and decrypt their high-capacity storage," Moore said. "In multi-tenant environments, high-capacity encryption is vital for coping with spikes in traffic when efficient data exchange is critical."

Biometric Encryption and More

Biometric encryption, in which biometric data is merged with encryption algorithms to provide a type of two-factor authentication, shows some promise, said Cedric Leighton, a retired Air Force colonel who until 2010 was deputy director for training at the NSA. "Other promising data-encryption technologies include quantum cryptography—using the principles of quantum mechanics to help secure communications—and something known as fully homomorphic encryption, which allows a user to perform search, sorting and calculations on encrypted data and get the same results as if that data were unencrypted," said Leighton, who currently runs a Washington-based strategic risk consulting firm. "For cloud computing, some promising technologies like Cipher Cloud Gateway may provide good encryption solutions," Leighton said.

Yet even as new encryption technologies arrive, the military continues to face new data-protection challenges. One of the most important emerging threats is the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) trend, which has personnel using their own smartphones and tablets for routine tasks. "The evolving BYOD market in the DOD space is ... something that is outpacing current offerings for commercial [encryption] products," said Joseph Ford, a solutions engineer at Accuvant, a Denver-based company that provides information security services to the federal government. "Keeping data secure, encrypted, and monitored, while being able to utilize technology that middle-school-age children have mastered, is essential."

Additional Online Resources

The U.S. Military's First Cryptographic System,%20Winter/Winter%2002/stager.htm

History of Computer Cryptography and Secrecy Systems

World War II Pigeon Code: Unbreakable?