Storing encryption keys — best practices


I have a web application that uses a symmetric encryption algorithm.

How would you store the secret key and initialization vector? Storing as a literal in the code seems like a bad idea. How about app settings? What is the best practice here?

Best Solution

One standard approach in the webapp world is to split the key and put it in different places. E.g., you might split the key and put part of it in the filesystem (outside of the 'webapps' directory), part of it in the JNDI configuration (or .net equivalent), and part of it in the database. Getting any single piece isn't particularly hard if you're compromised, e.g., examining backup media or SQL injection, but getting all of the pieces will require a lot more work.

You can split a key by XOR-ing it with random numbers of the same size. (Use a cryptographically strong random number generator!) You can repeat this process several times if you want to split the key into multiple pieces. At the end of the process you want, e.g., three partial keys such that p1 ^ p2 ^ p3 = key. You might need to base64-encode some of the partial keys so they can be stored properly, e.g., in a JNDI property.

(There are more sophisticated ways to split a key, e.g., an n-of-m algorithm where you don't require all of the pieces to recreate the key, but that's -far- beyond what you need here.)

If you can require the user to actively enter the password, there are PBE (password-based encryption) algorithms that convert a password to a good symmetric key. You want to find one that requires an external file as well. Again it's a case the tape backups or the password itself isn't enough, you need both. You could also use this to split the password into two pieces with JNDI - you can use a plaintext passphrase in JNDI and an initialization file somewhere in the filesystem.

Finally, whatever you do be sure you can 'rekey' your application fairly easily. One approach is to use the password obtained above to decrypt another file that contains the actual encryption key. This makes it easy to change the password if you think it's been compromised without requiring a massive reencryption of all of the data - just reencrypt your actual key.