Crypto providers try to take the pain out of encryption

SAN FRANCISCO — The security of personal information and other sensitive data has become a high-profile issue. A series of reports of breaches caused by lost or stolen laptop PCs and drives has led to requirements for increased protection of those devices and the data they contain.

At the same time, mobile devices have become integral to both private-sector and government enterprises, and information technology administrators must balance security and productivity.

“You cannot hinder productivity while ensuring security,” said Susan Callahan, senior vice president of business development and marketing at Safend, an endpoint security company.

Safend is one of several companies demonstrating new products at the RSA Conference this week that help take the sting out of securing devices by encrypting their disks.

Full-disk encryption protects data on lost or stolen devices by making the disk inaccessible once the machine has powered down. Anyone trying to turn the machine on must first authenticate himself, which should block unauthorized users. Strong encryption and the tools to implement them are readily available. The challenge is keeping them simple for end users to operate and administrators to manage.

Earlier this year, the Trusted Computing Group released its Opal security subsystem storage specification, which defines a common standard for self-encrypting hard drives. Such drives are already available, but Opal could make it easier for government agencies to acquire them in large procurements by providing a specification that any drive manufacturer could meet.

2009 is a transition year for acquiring the technology, said Steven Sprague, president and chief executive officer of Wave Systems Corp., which makes software to control hardware-based systems. He said he expects to see the Opal specification included in government commodity purchase programs by this summer.

Wave Systems is demonstrating a version of its Embassy Trust Suite authentication and access management software at the conference. It supports self-encryption on drives from Seagate Technology, Fujitsu, Toshiba and Hitachi.

Self-encrypting drives that use Wave Systems’ Embassy Trust Suite have already shipped with Dell laptop PCs. The suite lets a machine be registered to a user for access control. The encryption and authentication are done on the hardware to minimize any impact or performance when the computer is powered up and down.

“It’s extremely difficult to break,” Sprague said. “The keys used for encryption never leave the drive.”

The ability to specify a common platform in a competitive acquisition will likely make the technology more widely used, Sprague said. The specifications will also make it easier to integrate the technology, reducing the chances of problems because of interference with the operating system.

Embassy Trust Suite also supports the Trusted Platform Module, a chip that allows onboard key generation and storage so that hardware devices can authenticate themselves to a network. Many PCs are shipped with the technology, but “in most cases, these have not been turned on yet,” Sprague said. He hopes that the module’s ease of management will change that.

Safend simplifies hard-disk encryption and reduces the chance of operating system failure by encrypting most of the disk with its Safend Encryptor. “What we’re doing is encrypting everything with the exception of the operating system and the program files,” Callahan said.

The user can boot up the protected computer without authenticating to the encryption platform, but single sign-on technology lets the user decrypt protected data during Microsoft Windows authentication.

Safend released its Encryptor in October but is formally announcing it at the RSA Conference. It uses an agent on the client that is managed through a central server. A machine key for encrypting and decrypting data is generated and remains on the client. Administrators set password policy.

Both Wave Systems and Safend products use strong 256-bit Advanced Encryption Standard encryption.

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