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How Confidential Computing Can Change Cybersecurity
Encrypting data while in use, not just in transit and at rest, closes one more avenue of cyberattack.
Kolawole Samuel Adebayo
January 5, 2023
5 Min Read
Source: Yevgeniy Melnik via Alamy Stock Photo
Digital transformation initiatives, spurred by COVID-19, are helping companies scale new heights in efficiency and productivity. However, they have also highlighted to enterprise leaders the need for tighter cybersecurity measures — especially as attackers continue to ride the wave of new technologies to launch sophisticated attacks. The number of records exposed in data breaches consistently went up throughout 2022 — 3.33 million records in the first quarter of 2022, 5.54 million records in the second quarter, and 14.78 million records in the third quarter — according to data from Statista.
Organizations face various challenges as they grapple with managing and securing the explosion of data created, in part, by remote environments. This, coupled with the lack of visibility across dispersed networks and growing migration to the cloud, has increased the risk of attacks across multiple industries, including healthcare, financial services, and decentralized finance (DeFi).
Confidential computing segregates data and code from the host computer's system and makes it harder for unauthorized third parties to access the data. The way that confidential computing protects sensitive data could smooth the way for increased cloud adoption in highly regulated sectors such as finance and healthcare, according to Gartner.
As more organizations handle large volumes of data, ushering in a greater need for privacy and data security, confidential computing is poised to close that security gap by ensuring data remains confidential at all times — while at rest, in transit, and in use.
A Different Approach to Cybersecurity
Most encryption schemes focus on protecting while at rest, or while in transit. Confidential computing protects data while in use — by allowing data to remain encrypted even as it’s being processed and used in applications. The market for confidential computing is expected to grow up to $54 billion by 2026, according to a report by Everest Group.
"Everybody wants to continue to reduce the attack surface of data. Up to this point, it is obviously encrypted in transit and at rest. Confidential computing solves the encrypted in-use at the infrastructure level," said Justin Boitano, vice president and general manager of Nvidia's enterprise and edge computing operations, in a previous article on Dark Reading.
Anil Rao, vice president and general manager for systems architecture and engineering at Intel's office of the chief technology officer, also noted in the article that confidential computing will also help enterprises build a new class of applications where third-party data sets can mingle with proprietary data sets in a secure area to create better learning models.
The hardware element of confidential computing makes it uniquely secure, says Jay Harel, VP of product at Opaque Systems. "A hacker must literally crack the CPU open and tap into the silicon die in order to steal any confidential data," Harel says. "Most data breaches happen remotely, over the Internet. Confidential computing requires physical access to the hardware, making a breach much less likely."
Cloud vendors Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud make confidential computing available through CPUs from Intel and AMD, while Amazon AWS uses its own Nitro technology. "I wouldn't say that the hardware is fully mainstream yet, as most compute resources offered by these vendors still don't have confidential computing capabilities," Harel notes.
As Noam Dror, senior vice president of solution engineering at Hub Security, puts it, "Today, when hackers get past standard security controls, they can access data in use which is totally exposed and unencrypted. Existing cybersecurity measures have a hard time dealing with these issues. This is where confidential computing comes in, providing comprehensive cyber protection across all levels. These most sensitive data must be protected leveraging confidential computing because the computing environment will always be vulnerable."
Helps Industries Share Data Securely
The confidential computing approach to cybersecurity offers several advantages, particularly in sectors where client or patient data is highly sensitive and regulated — like the healthcare sector, for example. In such sectors, confidential computing can enable secure multiparty training of AI for different purposes and ensure data privacy.
Cloud security company Fortanix says that financial services in particular should invest in confidential computing, for several reasons: it involves masses of personally identifiable information (PII), it is heavily regulated, its monetary value attracts attention from cyber criminals, and "it's an industry that hasn't figured out a secure way to share valuable data among each other that can be used to detect fraud or money laundering," a Fortanix spokesperson says. Fortanix adds it is also seeing interest in confidential computing from industries with similar characteristics, such as healthcare enterprises and government entities.
"Confidential computing reduces the trusted computing base to the minimum. It takes the trust away from configuration files, and secrets and passwords managed by humans, which can be error-prone. The trust circle is reduced to the CPU, and the application, and everything in between — the operating system, the network, the administrators, can be removed from that trust circle. Confidential computing gets closest to achieving zero trust when establishing communication between app-to-app or machine-to-machine," Fortanix says.
Complete Control Over Data
Today's protective solutions are insufficient and leave critical data exposed. Cloud providers AMD, Intel, Google Cloud, Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Services, Red Hat, and IBM have already deployed confidential computing offerings. A growing number of cybersecurity companies, including Fortinet, Anjuna Security, Gradient Flow, and Hub Security, are also providing such solutions.
Harel says, "Confidential computing is a natural addition to their security arsenal, allowing them to evolve their breach defense and take it to the next level. It allows them to finally protect data in use, after spending decades and billions of dollars protecting data at rest and in transit."
Nataraj Nagaratnam, IBM distinguished engineer and CTO for cloud security, believes that confidential computing is a game-changer, especially because it gives customers complete control of their data. "Confidential computing primarily aims to provide greater assurance to companies that their data in the cloud is protected and confidential. It encourages companies to move more of their sensitive data and computing workloads to public cloud services," he notes.
About the Author(s)
Kolawole Samuel Adebayo is a Harvard-trained tech entrepreneur, tech enthusiast, tech writer/journalist, and an executive ghostwriter. He has 10+ years of experience covering various tech news stories, writing thought leadership blogs, reports, datasheets, and case studies. His areas of expertise include cybersecurity, AI, ML, DevOps, blockchain, metaverse, and big data for C-level executive audiences. He has written for several publications, including VentureBeat, RSI Security, NWTechs, WATI Security, Draft.dev, Codecov, Teleport, Doppler, HotCars, and many more. He is also an award-winning poet, with works published in several journals around the world.
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