What is A Hardware Security Module (HSM)?

What is A Hardware Security Module (HSM)?

A hardware security module is a standalone hardware component that secures cryptographic processes. Depending on the type, the hardware security module can generate or manage keys for cryptographic procedures, protect signatures and identities, or secure the transmission of data.

What is a hardware security module (HSM)?

The abbreviation HSM stands for Hardware Security Module and can be translated with the German term Hardware-Sicherheitsmodul. An HSM is a piece of hardware that can take the form of a module, token, standalone device, or smart card and is optimized for encryption and cryptographic processes. The aim of the hardware security module is to secure cryptographic processes and ensure secure, encrypted data exchange.

Depending on the type, the HSM performs different tasks. The modules are often designed to generate, store or manage cryptographic keys. They protect the keys from unauthorized access and have random generators for key generation, for example.

Other common functions of hardware security modules are to provide signing and encryption algorithms. Both symmetric and asymmetric encryption methods can be implemented in an HSM. In the enterprise environment, hardware security modules ensure the integrity of the data of business-critical processes.

Goals and functions of the hardware security module

An HSM is designed to protect sensitive, security-relevant information from unauthorized reading or manipulation in a separate hardware area. In addition to keys, this can also include signatures, transaction data, programs, identities, or authentications. The Hardware Security Module makes the keys and services for encryption and decryption, signing or authentication available to other applications.

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Cryptographic algorithms that may be implemented in an HSM include symmetric encryption and decryption using AES, DES, or Triple-DES, asymmetric cryptosystems such as RSA, Diffie-Hellman, or ECDSA, or cryptological hash functions such as SHA-1.

The different types of hardware security modules

Depending on the application and field of use, different concepts for the realization and implementation of hardware security modules have become established in practice. Basically, a distinction can be made between the following types:

  • Hardware Security Modules for individuals
  • Hardware security modules for individual computers
  • Hardware security modules for high-security environments and complete IT structures

Hardware security modules for individuals are usually hardware components such as NFC tokens, USB tokens, or smart cards. They are designed to protect personal, security-relevant information and provide it securely for applications such as authentication or identity verification.

Security modules for individual computers are used, for example, in PCs, smartphones, network components, or in the onboard electronics of vehicles. As a kind of trusted platform, they provide protected environments for the secure execution of applications of various types.

Hardware security modules for the high-security environment protect critical transactions such as payment systems or encryption solutions across the entire infrastructure.

Certification of hardware security modules

Various certification standards exist for hardware security modules. These include FIPS 140-1 and 140-2 or standards from the German banking industry (DK) and Common Criteria (CC).

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HSMs from certification service providers for generating digital signatures, for example, are certified according to CC protection profile CWA 14167-2.

Possible applications for hardware security modules

Hardware security modules can be used in a wide range of applications. They are used in smart cards, security tokens, transaction systems of banks, SSL servers, in the automotive sector, or in access control systems.

Other possible uses and applications for HSMs include security processors for networks, archiving systems, PKI certification authorities, e-tickets, DNS protection, e-mail encryption, and transaction security in toll systems.