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Enterprises prioritise customer data protection but continue to leave it exposed

By Shannon Williams
Fri 16 Apr 2021
FYI, this story is more than a year old

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, new research has revealed.

The Entrust 2021 Global Encryption Trends study by the Ponemon Institute found that 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 organisations' 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 organisations don’t prioritise protecting customer personal information, they raise enterprise risk of lost business and reputation,” says 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 study highlights encouraging trends as well. For the first time, half (50%) of organisations now report that they have an overall encryption strategy applied consistently, while 37% report a limited encryption strategy.

But this milestone reveals new gaps, particularly in multi-cloud environments. Encryption tools abound, with organisations 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 organisational data resides across on-premise, virtual, cloud and hybrid environments is an ongoing issue. As such, 65% of organisations report discovering where sensitive data resides continues to be, by far, the top challenge in planning and executing a methodical encryption strategy.

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 organisations 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.

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%)

“Looking at the results of the Entrust 2021 Global Encryption Trends study in context of the past 16 years, it’s clear that cybersecurity and data protection have never been more complex, at a time when the stakes have never been higher,” says Dr Larry Ponemon, chairman and founder of the Ponemon Institute. 

“Most pertinently, it’s encouraging that consumer data protection is such a high priority for organisations, but there is clearly some work to be done in turning that priority into a reality in terms of what data is actually encrypted and at what points in the data lifecycle. 

It’s also apparent that organisations of all shapes and sizes are looking to adopt encryption for a range of new and cutting-edge use cases, which will no doubt continue to drive innovation in the industry," he says.

 Grimm adds, “IT is tasked with deploying, tracking and managing encryption and security policy across on-premise, cloud, multi-cloud and hybrid environments, for an expanding array of uses cases, and amidst widening threats. 

"Encryption is essential for protecting company and customer data, but managing encryption and protecting the associated secret keys are rising pain points as organisations engage multiple cloud services for critical functions," Grimm says.

“Rising use of HSMs for encryption and key management shows that IT is starting the meet these challenges. Organisations will benefit from a growing and ecosystem of integrated solutions for cloud security policy management, secrets management and securing containers and application development to help them bring their crypto into the light and under control.”

Key global trends include:


  • Out of the countries surveyed, the U.S. is the leading user of encryption (70%, which is 20% greater than the global average) and of HSMs (72%, which is 23% greater than the global average).
  • The U.K. encrypts customer information at the highest rate (59% versus a 42% global average).
  • Sweden has the highest use of encryption with IoT devices (47% extensively deployed versus a 33% global average).
  • Despite the global average being 54%, Spain, Japan and Hong Kong rank protecting customer information as the top driver for encrypting at 77%, 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%.
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