Risk Increase in Laptop Loss with Encryption?

There has been a bunch of buzz in the last few days about researchers who figured out how to retrieve crypto keys from RAM on stolen laptops. Several analysts have talked about this raising the risk for data loss from laptop theft and some are even questioning the effectiveness of crypto as a control. I think that much of this is hype and will prove to be overblown in the coming months.

First, the attack has some difficulty and knowledge requirements. This essentially makes it equivalent to a forensic technique and as such is well beyond the capabilities of basic attackers. It requires knowledge deeper than an average computer user or power user would possess. While this does not eliminate the risk, it does significantly reduce the pool of attackers capable of exploiting the vulnerability. Further risk reductions could be gained by understanding that the attackers must gain access to the device (what controls are in place for this?, what training have you done on laptop loss control?)  and the device must be in a sleep state or recently powered down (have you taught users to power down laptops completely when removing them from the office or other controlled areas?). Each step in training and additional controls further serves to reduce the risks from this vulnerability.

Vendors are also reacting to the problem. Many are identifying the key management processes in their products and moving to change them in such a way as to make them more effective with this attack in mind. Their results and effectiveness are likely to vary, but at least many of them are trying.

So, while laptop loss remains a potential data theft risk, even with crypto in place, it is likely to remain a manageable and acceptable risk if proper awareness controls are in place. So before you put too much stock in some of the “near panic” FUD levels some security analysts are shouting, step back, take a look at it from a rational risk standpoint and then identify what you can do about it.

This issue again reinforces that there aren’t any silver bullets in security. Nothing is “absolute protection”, even high level math. The only real way to do security is through proper, rational risk management…