IAPP-GDPR Web Banners-300x250-FINAL

Luther Martin

Forget Conventional Wisdom. Modern Encryption Technology is Ideal for Privacy Applications. Here's Why.

Your organization needs to comply with privacy regulations. Your board of directors knows the business needs to protect sensitive information as it moves among business partners, mobile users and your enterprise. Yet security technologies such as encryption are far too complex and far too difficult to deploy on a broad scale.

Actually, that is  no longer the case. Leveraging identity-based encryption (IBE) is far easier and more scalable than traditional encryption technologies.

So how exactly did encryption earn its reputation for being too difficult and too costly for widespread use? Let's take a quick look at encryption's evolution, review the difficult early years and examine how today's IBE approach solves the problems from yesteryear.

In a 1995 Carnegie-Mellon University study (popularized in the paper, "Why Johnny Can't Encrypt"), sending and receiving encrypted email proved to be too hard for 75 percent of the study's participants. Fast forward 10 years and there seems to have been little progress in this area, as the title of the 2006 follow-up paper, "Why Johnny Still Can't Encrypt" indicates. If encryption isn't practical, there's no point in doing it.

The high cost of using encryption is often connected to the cost of public key infrastructure (PKI). According to the General Accounting Office, U.S. federal agencies typically spend more than $220 per digital certificate during PKI projects. In a few cases, the cost exceeded $1,000 per certificate, even exceeding $46,000 in one case. It's hard enough to do a convincing ROI calculation for many security technologies - imagine how hard it would be to justify costs like those.

Security expert Dan Geer, currently the chief scientist of Verdasys, once conjectured that the cost of using encryption is roughly the same, no matter what encryption technology you embrace. If an organization leverages symmetric encryption (technology that uses the same key to both encrypt and decrypt), Geer noted that the cost of granting the keys is high. He also noted that the cost of using asymmetric encryption (technology where one key is used to encrypt and another key to decrypt) is also high. In this case, checking keys for validity before they are used triggers most of the cost. Geer's conjecture indicates that organizations shouldn't expect to escape the high cost of encryption,  regardless of our approach.

Turning Point
1n 2001, Professors Dan Boneh of Stanford University and Matt Franklin of the University of California, Davis, invented a new type of cryptography that violates Geer's principle. Specifically, they created the first practical and secure identity-based or IBE algorithm.

IBE leverages a user's identity for his or her key instead of using a random collection of bits. This approach eliminates many of the difficulties with traditional encryption and therefore makes encryption a more cost-effective solution for meeting today's data privacy regulations.

The benefits don't end there. IBE is simpler that PKI, and therefore has a lower total cost of ownership (TCO). In fact, IBE is more than six-times less expensive than PKI alternatives, according to Ferris Research.

Protecting the data instead of the network is now feasible, and the goal of eliminating the need to maintain a strong, well-defined network security perimeter is a realistic one.

Your Identity, Your Privacy
IBE can use almost anything as a person's identity, an email, IP or hardware address - as long as it's unique. Today, more than 5 million users worldwide leverage IBE to encrypt email messages, and for most, their email addresses are their identities.

A big benefit to organizations is that it is also quite easy to include policy information in an IBE key. Instead of encrypting using the identity -"


This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

," it's just as easy to encrypt using the identity "


This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it


The way to calculate an IBE encryption key is publicly known, and all IBE-enabled applications can do it. Data from existing Identity and Access Management (IAM) systems can define identities, helping increase the return on that investment as IBE is used to solve the problem of managing data privacy.

For decryption to take place using IBE, a user has to be able to authenticate to a key server. The user who requests a key needs to prove he or she are authorized to receive it. If "


This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

&classification=PCI" is used as an IBE encryption key, for example, a user might have to prove both that he or she owns the email account (


This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

), and that he or she is  entitled access to the PCI information before the key server grants the decryption key.

This ability to implement policy within the keys separates IBE from other encryption technologies. Further, IBE can easily implement the type of complex policies that data privacy regulations require.

Supporting Structured & Unstructured Data
The ease of using IBE to encrypt data is not affected by the level of structure in it. Traditionally, it has been manageable to encrypt a database, a case where the data is highly structured. Encrypting data with less structure, like email, has been more difficult, which has limited the adoption of the technology. Even more challenging has been encrypting unstructured data, like documents and spreadsheets, which can reside anywhere on a network yet still contain sensitive information.

IBE resolves these challenges. Indeed, it makes policy-based encryption very easy to implement by embedding policy in encryption keys and requiring authentication to get the corresponding decryption keys. The same key management platform can be used for all three cases, so IBE can form the basis for an enterprise-wide key management strategy that can extend easily to include new applications.

Clearly, IBE has solved many of the encryption challenges that today's enterprises face. By embedding policy directly in keys, IBE makes it easy to enforce policy. And by leveraging existing IAM infrastructure to define identities, IBE easily integrates into existing infrastructures.

At long last, encryption will be a key enabling technology that empowers us to ensure data-centric security.

Luther Martin is chief security architect at Palo Alto, CA-based Voltage Security, Inc. (www.voltage.com). He is the author of the IETF draft standards on identity-based encryption algorithms and their use in encrypted email, and is a frequent author in the areas of information security, risk management and project management. His interests include pairing-based cryptography, business applications of information security and risk management. He holds a MS degree from The Johns Hopkins University in Electrical Engineering. He can be reached at


This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it


If you want to comment on this post, you need to login.


Board of Directors

See the esteemed group of leaders shaping the future of the IAPP.

Contact Us

Need someone to talk to? We’re here for you.

IAPP Staff

Looking for someone specific? Visit the staff directory.

Learn more about the IAPP»

Daily Dashboard

The day’s top stories from around the world

Privacy Perspectives

Where the real conversations in privacy happen

The Privacy Advisor

Original reporting and feature articles on the latest privacy developments

Privacy Tracker

Alerts and legal analysis of legislative trends

Privacy Tech

Exploring the technology of privacy

Canada Dashboard Digest

A roundup of the top Canadian privacy news

Europe Data Protection Digest

A roundup of the top European data protection news

Asia-Pacific Dashboard Digest

A roundup of the top privacy news from the Asia-Pacific region

IAPP Westin Research Center

Original works. Groundbreaking research. Emerging scholars.

Advertise in IAPP Publications

Find out how to get your message in front the people you want to reach. Download a media kit now.

Get more News »

Find a KnowledgeNet Chapter Near You

Network and talk privacy at IAPP KnowledgeNet meetings, taking place worldwide.

Women Leading Privacy

Events, volunteer opportunities and more designed to help you give and get career support and expand your network.

IAPP Job Board

Looking for a new challenge, or need to hire your next privacy pro? The IAPP Job Board is the answer.

Join the Privacy List

Have ideas? Need advice? Subscribe to the Privacy List. It’s crowdsourcing, with an exceptional crowd.

Find more ways to Connect »

Find a Privacy Training Class

Two-day privacy training classes are held around the world. See the complete schedule now.

Online Privacy Training

Build your knowledge. The privacy know-how you need is just a click away.

The Training Post—Can’t-Miss Training Updates

Subscribe now to get the latest alerts on training opportunities around the world.

New Web Conferences Added!

See our list of upcoming web conferences. Just log on, listen in and learn!

Train Your Staff

Get your team up to speed on privacy by bringing IAPP training to your organization.

Learn more »

CIPP Certification

The global standard for the go-to person for privacy laws, regulations and frameworks

CIPM Certification

The first and only privacy certification for professionals who manage day-to-day operations

CIPT Certification

The industry benchmark for IT professionals worldwide to validate their knowledge of privacy requirements

Certify Your Staff

Find out how you can bring the world’s only globally recognized privacy certification to a group in your organization.

Learn more about IAPP certification »

Get Close-up

Looking for tools and info on a hot topic? Our close-up pages organize it for you in one easy-to-find place.

Where's Your DPA?

Our interactive DPA locator helps you find data protection authorities and summary of law by country.

IAPP Westin Research Center

See the latest original research from the IAPP Westin fellows.

Looking for Certification Study Resources?

Find out what you need to prepare for your exams

More Resources »

GDPR Comprehensive: Registration Open

New! Intensive two-day GDPR training led by the sharpest minds in the field. It's a can't-miss event.

The Congress Is Cancelled

The IAPP Europe Data Protection Congress 2015 is cancelled. Click through to learn more.

Sponsor an Event

Increase visibility for your organization—check out sponsorship opportunities today.

Exhibit at an Event

Put your brand in front of the largest gatherings of privacy pros in the world. Learn more.

More Conferences »

Become a Member

Start taking advantage of the many IAPP member benefits today

Corporate Members

See our list of high-profile corporate members—and find out why you should become one, too

Renew Your Membership

Don’t miss out for a minute—continue accessing your benefits

Join the IAPP»