What is a General Purpose Hardware Security Module (HSM)

Man on laptop, The office

Published: 13 February 2023

Reading time: 3 minutes

Today more than ever, organizations have a need for high level security of their data and the keys that protect that data. 

The lifecycle of cryptographic keys also requires a high degree of management, thus automation of key lifecycle management is ideal for the majority of companies. This is where Hardware Security Modules, or HSMs, come in. HSMs provide a dedicated, secure, tamper-resistant environment to protect cryptographic keys and data, and to automate the lifecycle of those same keys. But what is an HSM, and how does an HSM work?

What is an HSM?
A Hardware Security Module is a specialized, highly trusted physical device which performs all major cryptographic operations, including encryption, decryption, authentication, key management, key exchange, and more. They have a robust OS and restricted network access protected via a firewall. One of the reasons HSMs are so secure is because they have strictly controlled access, and are virtually impossible to compromise.

What do Hardware Security Modules do?
Hardware security modules act as trust anchors that protect the cryptographic infrastructure of some of the most security-conscious organizations in the world by securely managing, processing, and storing cryptographic keys inside a hardened, tamper-resistant device.

There are two main types of Hardware Security Module:

1. General Purpose

General Purpose HSMs can utilize the most common encryption algorithms, such as PKCS#11, CAPI, CNG as well as other common algorithms, which are mainly used with Public Key Infrastructures to safe-guard digital keys and certificates (which protect PKI from being breached), crypto-wallets, and other basic sensitive data.

2. Payment & Transaction

A Payment HSM is used primarily by the banking industry for the protection of payment transactions which include:

- the use of PIN (generation, management, validation and translation of the PIN Block in transactions carried out at POS and ATMs)

- the protection of electronic fund transfers (EFT)

- the generation of data for magnetic strips and EMV chips in card production and personalization processes

- the processing of payment transactions with debit and credit cards

- the validation of cards, users and cryptograms during payment transaction processing

- Payment credential issuing for payment cards and mobile applications

Payment HSMs generally provide cryptographic support for most card brands' payment applications, and their interconnection interfaces are usually more limited than those of general-purpose HSMs.

What is the purpose of Hardware Security Modules?
Enterprises buy hardware security modules to protect transactions, identities, and applications, as HSMs excel at securing cryptographic keys and provisioning encryption, decryption, authentication, and digital signing services for a wide range of applications.

Benefits of using HSMs
Hardware Security Modules have a number of benefits including:

- Tamper-resistant, tamper-evident, and tamper-proof systems to provide extremely secure physical systems

- Providing the highest level of security for sensitive data and cryptographic keys on the market

- Meeting security standards and regulations

- Cryptographic key lifecycle tasks can be automated quickly and efficiently

- Cryptographic keys are stored in a single location rather than in multiple locations.

Contact us for more information. We can provide you  the highest level of security!

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