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Enterprise-Grade versus Military-Grade Security: What’s the Difference?

As the world’s leading manufacturer of hardware-encrypted USB drives and external SSDs, Kingston’s IronKey line of products offers two levels of security: enterprise-grade and military-grade.

But what makes these definitions different, and how can buyers know what level of security is the prudent choice for their sensitive data?

While it may be assumed that one level is appropriate for businesses and corporate solutions and the other is only suited for government agency use, these terms are not so clear-cut.

Depending on the industry and nature of the data being handled, the grade of security may need to change to meet certain standards. Defining these differences can help organizations and consumers alike understand how these levels apply to their own uses.

Enterprise-Grade Security

Designed for professionals and enterprises that need to protect data while in transit, these drives begin with FIPS 197 certification. This certification comes from the U.S. government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) agency and involves approved lab testing to certify that AES 256-bit encryption in XTS mode is properly implemented.

The intention is to show that the drive has correctly implemented the AES encryption algorithms to deliver the security level expected from using AES 256-bit encryption in XTS mode. Kingston’s Vault Privacy 50 Series and Vault Privacy 80 External SSD drives are FIPS 197 certified. Kingston’s Vault Privacy line is used and trusted by more professionals and businesses around the world than any other equivalent hardware-encrypted USB drive.

  • FIPS 197 Certification: This certification is granted by the U.S. government's NIST agency. It involves approved lab testing to ensure the correct implementation of the AES 256-bit encryption in XTS mode, a critical standard for trusted data encryption.
  • Hardware Encryption: Kingston's Vault Privacy 50 Series and 80 External SSD drives use hardware-based encryption to protect data stored on the drive. These drives are among the most widely used by professionals and businesses worldwide, as they cannot be compromised in the same way commodity, software-encrypted USB drives can be.

Military-Grade Security

Military-grade security is a higher standard of data protection typically used by government, military agencies, and top-level employees within enterprises for the storage of sensitive and high-value data. These standards, such as FIPS 140-2 and FIPS 140-3 Level 3, are also used by businesses around the world for the best data protection storage drives, such as the IronKey S1000B, D500S, and the Keypad 200. The security measures in FIPS 140 series drives with Level 3 protection are designed to resist both digital and physical tampering, making it exceptionally difficult to access the data without proper authentication.

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Main Features

  • FIPS 140-2 or 140-3 Level 3 Certification: These certifications are defined by the U.S. government's NIST agency and denote a higher level of security suitable for governmental and military applications. FIPS 140-3 Level 3 involves a longer minimum password or PIN length (8 characters, up from FIPS 140-2’s 7 character minimum), enhanced random number generation for creating AES encryption keys, thermal and voltage protection to automatically shut down drives when they reach certain thresholds, and the elimination of factory-preset passwords in favor of forced enrolment upon first use.
  • Tampering Resistance: All Level 3 certified drives provide protection against physical tampering, such as the removal of chips from the drive's circuit board. They are internally sealed with special and hardened epoxy to make the removal of drive components nearly impossible without causing damage. This epoxy process provides strong protection against electrical and electronic attacks against drive components.
  • Self-Testing of Security Measures: FIPS 140-3 Level 3 drives perform self-testing during bootup and use to ensure that all internal security mechanisms are fully functional. In the event of fault detection or potential modifications, the secure microprocessor will shut down and possibly "brick" the drive to prevent unauthorized data access.

Frequently Asked Security Grade Questions

A cityscape background behind a window is out of focus. A glowing blue question mark with a circuit board pattern is superimposed. A hand points to the question mark.

How do I know if my business needs enterprise-grade or military-grade security?

Enterprise-grade security is suitable for standard business data, such as employee information, customer records, financial transactions, and business communications. For highly sensitive or high-value data, like intellectual property, military-grade security is recommended.

What does FIPS 197 certification mean and how does it ensure data security?

FIPS 197 certification validates the correct implementation of the AES 256-bit encryption algorithm in XTS mode, ensuring that data on the drive is securely protected from unauthorized access. It is key to trusting the supplier of your drive.

How do drives get certified?

Take for example, the IronKey Keypad 200 drive, which launched in 2022. This drive went through a year of development involving controller firmware and other changes and nearly another year in NIST-authorized FIPS 140-3 Level 3 certification lab testing. The IronKey D500S drive, launched in September 2023, also spent a total of two years in preparation for its market launch. This rigorous certification process even includes code reviews to make sure that drive authentication and key management are implemented properly and meet this military-grade standard. In addition, the drive’s casing and epoxy encapsulation is also separately checked for anti-tampering resistance.

What is penetration testing and why is it important?

Kingston’s VP50 series of drives are also tested by SySS, a leader in independent penetration testing, as an added feature to validate enterprise-grade security. Cybersecurity best practices include penetration testing, or pen testing, where a company hires a third party to try and attack a drive and compromise its security to access the data stored on it. The VP50 series drives earned the Approved Security certification from penetration testing experts at SySS. This certification ensures customers can trust that the enterprise-grade security credentials of the VP50 series drives have been independently verified as providing robust protection against potential vulnerabilities and unauthorized access.

How is FIPS 140-2 or 140-3 Level 3 certification different from older certifications, like FIPS 197?

FIPS 140-2/3 Level 3 certifications set a significantly higher security standard than FIPS 197 – FIPS 140 series are a superset of FIPS 197. Their lab testing and certification process is much more detailed and can take a year or longer to successfully complete. FIPS 140-2 and -3 Level 3 add a lot more security parameters that are checked and tested, as well as enhanced operational requirements on the secure processor and tamper resistance.

What is the highest security standard available in USB drives?

FIPS 140-3 Level 3 sets a very high-security standard for hardware-encrypted USB drives that sell at a reasonable cost, but there are even higher security offerings, such as the IronKey S1000. drive, designed by Kingston IronKey for government and business uses, incorporates a separate cryptochip (a smart card) for the storage of Critical Security Parameters (CSPs).

This smart card design greatly improves security against component tampering and features chip-level protections that can self-destruct the crypto-chip if a number of attacks are detected. In addition, S1000 has a self-destruct option that can be set up so that upon detection of a Brute Force attack, the drive actually “bricks” and becomes non-functional forever. While the S1000 drives were certified under a previous standard, they will remain available in the Kingston IronKey portfolio as they are a standard drive used by many governments and military, as well as enterprises.

Enterprise-grade IronKey drives provide an advanced standard of security far beyond commodity drives with software encryption, and for even more advanced risk mitigation features, military-grade drives follow an even higher standard. Whichever security level you choose - IronKey drives come with the highest levels of data protection available on the market today, delivering value and scalable security measures for any organization.

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