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Five Big Questions About Big Data Encryption

The NSA PRISM story is raising the stakes on Data Privacy. Encryption has never been more important

A few months ago experts predicted 2013 would be the Year of Big Data. To a large extent, those predictions have been spot on, with Big Data investment on the rise and success stories emerging across a variety of industries from insurance to pharma to professional basketball.

The Big Data narrative may be shifting though, as debate around data privacy heats up. No doubt the two topics are almost inextricably linked, as the PBS News Hour points out, but it wasn’t until late last week that the issue of data privacy became a trending topic in the U.S.

Citizens can vent, politicians can banter, news media can report, but the reality is Big Data is not going to be regulated away for the sake of privacy, so it’s incumbent upon organizations that collect big data to secure it, and ensure the data never falls into the hands of unauthorized individuals.

Encryption is one of the most widely used and effective means of securing big data, and organizations don’t need to hire a cryptographer to implement it.

Below are five questions you must ask before selecting an encryption and key management vendor:

1. Does the solution give you full control over your keys, even as data flows from one system to another?
It’s often said that key management is the hardest part of data encryption. That’s because there’s often a lack of clarity around key management and access. When evaluating encryption vendors, be sure to ask what types of key control policies can be established to prevent unauthorized access, and always be sure the data owner, not the cloud provider or other administrator, has complete control of the encryption keys.

2. Does the encryption solution allow for separation of duties between authorized personnel and systems administrators?
What good is data encryption if everyone, whether they need it or not, has access to the encrypted data? Proper, policy-controlled key management allows for separation of duties that allows system and cloud administrators to perform their jobs but restricts them from accessing encrypted data.

Remember, the most important part of key management is ensuring the keys do not reside on the same server as the encrypted data. This is akin to locking your car and leaving the keys in the driver’s side door.

3. Does the solution work in mixed IT environments where data is stored in public and private clouds as well as in an on-premises data center?
Look for a software-based encryption solution that performs just as well in an on-prem data center as it does in the cloud. Remember that regardless of where the data is stored, it’s important that the data owner, not the hosting provider, retain possession and management of the crypto keys. If your encryption solution doesn’t allow you to manage the keys, then look elsewhere.

4. Has the solution been tested and/or benchmarked on the applications running in your environment?
Most large organizations utilize a variety of database applications from the more traditional like MySQL and PostgreSQL to newer big data apps like Cassandra, MongoDB and HBase. To ensure your encryption utility functions cross-platform and meets your performance standards, ask your provider whether they’ve tested against the databases that are most important to you.

5. Does the solution use NIST-validated encryption algorithms?
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Computer Security Division publishes security requirements, FIPS 140-2, for cryptographic modules. If your vendor solution uses FIPS-validated crypto modules, you can feel confident in the strength of their cryptographic algorithm.

Let’s face it, big data isn’t going away. The value derived from it is simply way too valuable. And like anything else of value, it's time to take security seriously. If you are collecting and interacting with data, it’s your responsibility to protect it - protect the privacy of your customers, your employees and your IP. If your business relies on data, it’s time to get vocal and ask the hard questions.

More Stories By David Tishgart

After spending years at large corporations including Dell, AMD and BMC, David Tishgart joined the startup ranks leading product marketing for Gazzang. Focused on security for big data, he helps communicate the benefits and challenges that big data can present, offering practical solutions. When not ranting about encryption and key management, you can find David clamoring for a big data application that can fine tune his fantasy football team.

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