Is Tokenization or Encryption Keeping You Up at Night? Arrow to Content

April 20, 2011 | Leave a Comment

By Stuart Lisk, Senior Product Manager, Hubspan

Are you losing sleep over whether to implement tokenization or full encryption as your cloud security methodology? Do you find yourself lying awake wondering if you locked all the doors to your sensitive data? Your “sleepless with security” insomnia can be treated by analyzing your current situation and determining the level of coverage you need.

Do you need a heavy blanket that covers you from head to toe to keep you warm and cozy or perhaps just a special small blanket to keep your feet warm? Now extend this idea to your data security – do you need end-to-end encryption that blankets all of the data being processed or is a tokenization approach enough, with the blanket covering only the part of the data set that needs to be addressed?

Another main reason why there is much discussion over which method is right for you, relates to compliance with industry standards and government regulations. PCI DSS is the most common compliance issue as it focuses specifically on financial data being transmitted over a network, resulting in exposure to hackers and “the boogie man.”

There is much hype in the industry that makes us believe we must choose one approach over the other. Instead of the analysts and security experts helping us make the decision, they have actually caused more confusion and sleepless nights.

As with anything involving choice, there are pros and cons for each approach. Tokenization provides flexibility, because you can select (and thereby limit) the data that needs to be protected, such as credit card numbers. Another example of how tokenization is often leveraged is in the processing of Social Security numbers. We all know how valuable those digits are. People steal those golden numbers and, in essence, steal identities. Isolating a Social Security number allows it to be replaced with a token during transit, and then replaced with the real numbers upon arrival at the destination. This process secures the numbers from being illegally obtained.

However, in order to do this successfully, you must be able to identify the specific data to encrypt, which means you must have intimate knowledge of your data profile. Are you confident you can identify every piece of sensitive data within your data set? If not, then encryption may be a better strategy.

Another advantage of utilizing tokenization as your security methodology is that it minimizes the cost and complexity of compliance with industry standards and government regulations. Certainly from a PCI DSS compliance issue, leveraging tokenization as a means to secure credit card data is less expensive than E2EE as the information that needs to be protected is well known and clearly identified.

Full, end-to-end encryption secures all the data regardless of its makeup, from one end of the process through to the destination. This “full” protection leaves no chance of missing data that should be protected. However, it could also be overkill, more expensive or potentially hurt performance.

Many companies will utilize full encryption if there is concern of computers being lost, stolen or worries of a natural disaster. Full end-to-end encryption ensures data protection from the source throughout the entire transmission. All data, without regard for knowing the content, is passed securely over the network, including public networks, to its destination where it is de-crypted and managed by the recipient.

While there is much being said in the market about performance, this should not be a deal breaker, and optimization technologies and methodologies can minimize the performance difference. It also depends on whether security is the highest priority.  In a recent survey Hubspan conducted on cloud security, more than 77% of the respondents said they were willing to sacrifice some level of performance in order to ensure data security. The reality is full encryption performance is acceptable for most implementations.

Also, you do not need to choose one methodology over the other. As with cloud implementations, many companies are adopting a hybrid approach when it comes to data security in the cloud. If your data set is well known and defined, and the data subset is sensitive, then tokenization is a reliable and proven method to implement. However, if you are not sure of the content of the data and you are willing to basically lock it down, then encrypting the data end-to-end is most likely the best approach.

Clearly there are a number of approaches one can take to secure their data from malware and other security holes. Tokenization and E2EE are two of the popular ways today. Fact is, you must look at a variety of different approaches and incorporate any and all of them to keep your data out of the hands of those that would do you harm.

It is also important to realize that each of these methodologies require a different set of infrastructure to support it. And the cost of implementing them will vary just as much. Keep that in mind as well as you consider how best to secure your data.

In an attempt not to over-simplify your decision criteria, think of data security as if you deciding whether to use a full comforter to keep you warm at night, or utilize the foot blanket to provide the warmth to your feet you specifically desire.

Stuart Lisk, Senior Product Manager, Hubspan (www.hubspan.com)

Stuart Lisk is a Senior Product Manager for Hubspan with over 20 years’ experience in enterprise network, system, storage and application product management. He has over ten years of experience managing cloud computing (SaaS) products.

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