Hardware Security Module: What is It and Why is It Used?

The growing cybersecurity threats have forced governments and regulatory bodies to realize the urgent need to implement reliable measures for maintaining data security and privacy. But, as more and more enterprises are making the transition to the cloud, the task of maintaining the safety of sensitive data and encryption keys has become all the more daunting.

At present, three main solutions are available for enterprise key management – Hardware security modules (HSM), key management services (KMS), and HSM as a service. In this article, we are going to discuss about HSM or hardware security module.

A hardware security module or HSM is basically a crypto processor, designed specifically for safeguarding and managing digital keys or cryptographic keys to provide extra security to sensitive data. It is a device that invigorates encryption operations by managing the entire cryptography key lifecycle, right from its creation, import, export, storage, and management to its audit and destruction.

An HSM can provide cryptographic keys for encryption, decryption, and authentication. Its core functionality revolves around encryption, which refers to the process that makes sensitive data indecipherable to people other than the authorized recipient. Encryption requires encryption keys, which are basically randomly created values that need to be kept secure for protecting the encrypted data.

Encryption keys are needed for decrypting information. A hardware security module provides a secure decryption to manage the confidentiality and authenticity of the message, by storing encryption keys within a Secure Cryptographic Device (SCD). When the HSM receives information through a trusted connection, it allows for fast and safe encryption or decryption by using the proper key.

HSMs are usually tamper-resistant, which implies that it is extremely difficult to tamper them without rendering them inoperable. Some HSMs can have features like tamper evidence and tamer responsiveness as well. Tamper responsiveness refers to the act of deleting keys if any tampering is detected.  

Internationally recognized standards like Common Criteria or FIPS 140 are used to certify HSMs and other cryptographic modules so as to assure the users about the design and implementation of the product, as well as the cryptographic algorithms. HSMs used for financial payment applications are certified by the Payment Card Industry Security Standards Council.

Cryptographic materials of data encryption or financial payment systems are symmetric, while cryptographic materials for applications like digital signing are asymmetric in nature. HSMs can support both asymmetric (public-key) and symmetric cryptography. They are basically employed by enterprises to protect their transactions, applications, and also their identities.

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