Key recovery vs. key escrow

An alert reader recently pointed out an interesting blog post that proposes a list of "red flags" that people should watch for when selecting a secure email solution. Apparently unhappy with this particular post, this reader suggested that the list of red flags in the interesting post be amended to include the following:

Red Flag #19. Alleged critics who disguise their opinions in pseudo scientific postings and don't declare their vested interest in competing firms and technology should not be trusted.

Red Flag #20. Industry Experts who quote themselves and reference only their own works in publications should not be trusted.

Red Flag #21. 4 year old competitive analysis papers do not have contemporary value.

I can't vouch for whether or not these additional red flags make sense or not, but I have to say that I was a bit puzzled by this particular red flag that the post mentioned:

Red Flag #3: It Just Works. Beware of hidden liabilities. For example, make sure that your keys are not escrowed in the servers providing the solution, as with IBE (Voltage). Nothing is safe in servers, not only from attackers but also from service providers and employees.

There's a big difference between the ability to do key recovery and key escrow, and this blog post (as well as some of the white papers available from the blog's web site) seems to badly confuse the two. Voltage's SecureMail lets you do key recovery. It doesn't do key escrow.

Key recovery lets you backup and restore cryptographic keys. If your CIO gets hit by a bus and you need access to their encrypted data, key recovery lets you do that. It also lets you recover your systems in the event of a failure, like a natural disaster might cause. Note the use of "you" here. A business doing key recovery backs up and restores their keys as needed and nobody else has access to these keys. Key recovery is often necessary for all sorts of legal and regulatory reasons, so it's a necessary feature of any enterprise encryption product.

With key escrow, on the other hand, a third-party gets copies of a cryptographic key. The US government led the push for key escrow back in the pre-dot-com era. The idea was for law enforcement agencies to have the ability to decrypt encrypted messages if they had the necessary court order. There was even talk of laws requiring all encryption to have this feature. It turned out that people weren't comfortable with the government having this ability and that technical problems plagued the proposed escrow schemes. In the end, the idea failed terribly. It's definitely not a feature that enterprise encryption products need.

Because IBE lets you calculate any private keys that you need, it makes key recovery easy. And because you can calculate any private keys that you need, you'll never be doing key escrow with IBE.

Key recovery is necessary. Key escrow isn't. Let's not confuse the two.

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