Enterprises prioritize customer data protection, but it’s still exposed

customer data encryption
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Enterprises see protecting customer personal information as the top reason to encrypt data, and yet report actually encrypting customer data at a far lower rate. This and other findings are highlighted in the Entrust 2021 Global Encryption Trends study, the sixteenth annual multinational survey by the Ponemon Institute reporting on the cybersecurity challenges organizations face today, and how and why organizations deploy encryption.

Identified threats and priorities 

For the second consecutive year, IT professionals rank protecting customer information as the top driver for deploying encryption technologies. The big reported disconnect is that customer information ranks fifth on the list of information that enterprises actually encrypt, indicating a wide chasm between an organization’s priorities and the realities of deploying encryption. When looking at what respondent enterprises actually encrypt, financial records (55%), payment-related data (55%), employee/HR data (48%) and intellectual property (48%) all outranked customer personal information (42%).

“Breaches of personal information strike at the heart of the relationship between enterprises and their customers. Encryption is at the foundation of data protection, and when organizations don’t prioritize protecting customer personal information, they raise enterprise risk of lost business and reputation,” said John Grimm, vice president of strategy at Entrust.

Compliance — which until recently was ranked as the top reason to encrypt — has a solid but decreasing influence over encryption use, continuing a trend noted in the 2020 Global Encryption Trends study. Protection of customer information (54%), protection against specific, identified threats (50%), and protection of intellectual property (49%) all rank higher than compliance, which now sits at 45%.

The complexity of managing encryption and keys in 2021

The study highlights encouraging trends as well. For the first time, half (50%) of organizations now report that they have an overall encryption strategy applied consistently, while 37% report a limited encryption strategy. The leading user of encryption in Asia Pacific (APAC) is Japan (60%), followed by Australia, Hong Kong and South Korea, which tie for second place at 54%. Southeast Asia (36%) notably lags behind the global average.

But this milestone reveals new gaps, particularly in multi-cloud environments. Encryption tools abound, with organizations report using an average of eight different products that perform encryption. Respondents rank performance, management of encryption keys, policy enforcement and support for both cloud and on-premises deployment are the top valued features of encryption solutions. In fact, 45% of respondents rated unified key management across both multiple clouds and enterprise environments as very important or important. This finding is consistent with encryption keys for cloud services — including Bring Your Own Key (BYOK) – being the most challenging to manage of all key types, according to the study.

Not only is key management increasingly complex, but simply knowing where organizational data resides across on-premise, virtual, cloud and hybrid environments is an ongoing issue. As such, 65% of organizations report discovering where sensitive data resides continues to be, by far, the top challenge in planning and executing a methodical encryption strategy.

The growing role of hardware security modules (HSMs)

Encryption key generation and management can be more effectively managed with the use of hardware security modules (HSMs), and their adoption is growing with two-thirds (66%) of respondents naming HSMs as being paramount to encryption or key management strategies, with projected growth to 77% over the next 12 months. The study also shows that, on top of traditional applications such as TLS/SSL, application encryption and PKI, HSMs are increasingly being used for more modern use cases such as container encryption/signing services, public cloud encryption, secrets management and privileged access management.  

As organizations continue their digital transformations, HSMs are playing an increasingly significant role in cloud environments. The study found that encryption or signing services for containers (40%) are the third most popular use case for HSMs behind application encryption (47%) and TLS/SSL (44%). Public cloud encryption, including BYOK, is the fourth most popular HSM use case (34%). Of particular note is the use of HSMs with secrets management solutions, which has risen to 7th place on the list of top HSM use cases, and is on the rise, set to grow an estimated 5% over the next 12 months.

Blockchain, quantum and adoption of new encryption technologies

The view of upcoming encryption technologies like multi-party computing and homomorphic encryption is that these are at least five years away from mainstream use, according to respondents. Similarly, while quantum algorithms are not expected to be a serious consideration for around eight years, this predicted timeline has accelerated half a year earlier than predicted in 2020’s report.

Blockchain is closer to mainstream use as an encryption technology. Currently used primarily as the foundation for cryptocurrency, it is expected that in less than three years, blockchain adoption and use cases will expand to include:

  • Cryptocurrency/wallets (59%)
  • Asset transactions/management (52%)
  • Identity (45%)
  • Supply chain (37%)
  • Smart contracts (35%)
  • Out of the APAC countries surveyed, Japan is the leading user of encryption (60%, which is 10% greater than the global average) and of HSMs (63%, which is 14% greater than the global average).
  • Southeast Asia ranks lowest in terms of encryption adoption (36%) and HSMs deployment (36%).
  • Hong Kong tops APAC and comes in second globally in reporting challenges associated with managing keys within organizations (66% versus a 56% global average of respondents that chose “pain” ratings at or above 7 out of a 10-point scale).
  • Despite the global average being 54%, Japan and Hong Kong rank protecting customer information as the top driver for encrypting at 74% and 72%, respectively.
  • Respondents in Korea are planning a large increase in the use of HSMs with application encryption over the next 12 months — growing from 40% to 61%.

Download the full report here.

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