ESF: Controls: Full Disk Encryption

By Mike Rothman

It happens quickly. An end user just needed to pick up something at the corner store or a big box retailer. He was in the store for perhaps 15 minutes, but that was plenty of time for a smash and grab. And then your phone rings, a laptop is gone, and it had information on about 15,000 customers. You sigh, hang up the phone and call the general counsel – it’s disclosure time.

Sound familiar? Maybe this has been you. It likely will be, unless you proactively take action to make sure that the customer data on those mobile devices cannot be accessed by whoever buys the laptop on the gray market. That’s right, you need to deploy full disk encryption (FDE) on the devices. Unless you enjoy disclosure and meeting with lawyers, that is.


Ultimately, encryption isn’t very novel. But managing encryption across an enterprise is, so key management and ease of use end up being the key features that generally drive FDE. As we’ve harped throughout this series, integration of that management with the rest of the endpoint functions is critical to gaining leverage and managing all the controls implemented on the endpoints.

Of course, that’s looking at the issue selfishly from the security professional’s perspective. Ultimately the success of the deployment depends on how transparent it is to users. That means it needs to fit in with the authentication techniques they already use to access their laptops. And it needs to just work. Locking a user out of their data, especially an important user at an inopportune, time will make you a pretty unpopular person.

Finally, don’t forget about those backups or software updates. If your encryption breaks your backups (and you are backing up all those laptops, right?) it’s a quick way to find yourself in the unemployment line. Same goes for having to tell the CIO everyone needs to bring their laptops back to the office every Patch Tuesday to get those updates installed.

Integration with Endpoint Suites

Given the natural order of innovation and consolidation, the industry has seen much consolidation of FDE solutions by endpoint vendors. Check Point started the ball rolling by acquiring Pointsec; shortly afterwards Sophos acquired Utimaco and McAfee acquired SafeBoot, which of course gives these vendors the ability to bundle FDE with their endpoint suites.

Now bundling on the purchase order is one thing, but what we are really looking for is bundling from a management standpoint. Can the encryption keys be managed by the endpoint security management console? Is your directory supported natively? Can the FDE policies be set up from the same interface you use for host firewalls and HIPS policies? Unless this level of integration is available, there is little leverage in using FDE from your endpoint vendor.

Free (as in beer?)

Like all good innovations, the stand-alone companies get acquired and then the capability tends to get integrated into the operating system – which is clearly the case with FDE. Both Microsoft BitLocker and Apple FileVault provide the capability to encrypt at the operating system level (Bitlocker is full drive, FileVault is OS). Yes, it’s free, but not really. As mentioned above, encryption isn’t really novel anymore, it’s the management of encryption that makes the difference. Neither Microsoft nor Apple currently provides adequate tools to really manage FDE across an enterprise.

Which means there will remain a need for third party managed FDE for the foreseeable future, and that also means the endpoint security suite is the best place to manage it. We expect further integration of FDE into endpoint security suites, further consolidation of the independent vendors, and ultimately commoditization of the capability. So we’ll joke over beers in a few years about how you use to pay separately for full disk encryption.

Now that we’ve examined the controls we use to protect the endpoints, we need to build a systematic program to ensure these controls are deployed, enforced, and reported on. That’s our topic for the next two posts, as we build the endpoint security program also consider what kind of reporting we need to keep the auditors happy.

Other posts in the Endpoint Security Fundamentals Series

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Thanks VB. I fixed the link. Driver error.


By Mike Rothman

Other posts in the Endpoint Security Fundamentals Series - link to - doesn’t work.

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Holy tag cloud spam, Batman!

Seriously, I’ve enjoyed this series. “Back to basics” approaches help us pull our heads out of, um, the trenches and look at the larger picture again to see what we’ve missed.

By Kyle Maxwell

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