Entrust puts down stake in the future of mobile security and digital certificates

The latest thing is putting a digital certificate in an iPhone so it can be used to wirelessly sign in to a PC or Macintosh.

Entrust, whose focus is identity-based security based on digital certificates, has come up with new ways its technology can play a role in mobile devices. According to Entrust CEO Bill Conner, the latest thing is putting a digital certificate in an Apple iPhone so it can be used to wirelessly sign in to a PC or Macintosh.

"I just sign in through my mobile device," says Conner in describing how his iPhone replaces a two-factor authentication card or dongle and device readers for signing into a PC. The digital certificate handshake between the user's PC and iPhone via Bluetooth wireless or near field communication (NFC) is done after entering a PIN code. Called IdentityGuard and mobile smart credentials, it can be used on Apple iOS, Google Android and BlackBerry devices. It might also be used for physical access.

[ MORE: Symantec SSL certificates feature cryptography 10k times harder to break than RSA-bit key ]

The future is oriented toward novel uses of mobile devices for security purposes, Conner says, noting Entrust just announced a partnership with mobile-device management software firm AirWatch to explore development work together.

One of the biggest transitions likely to occur over the next decade will be a shift toward what's called elliptic curve cryptography and away from RSA algorithms, Conner says.

That's because ECC, based on the Digital Signature Algorithm, is seen as a stronger form of crypto used at a much smaller-length key. Today, it's a prudent measure to use RSA in a 2048-bit key length to guard against encryption cracking. But that's likely the upper practical limit for the RSA algorithm to be taken in terms of key length -- going higher is "an absurd proposition" in terms of practical processing speed and implementations, Conner says.

ECC is "faster and smaller in footprint" but the Web ecosphere of servers and browsers is not yet ready to make use of it widely for authentication and encryption, says Conner. Entrust's ECC strategy at this time is terms of digital certificates is to offer ECC "in a 2048-bit RSA wrapper," says Conner. He says this wrapper approach is not in widespread use but is being used today by a large commercial customer for mobile tablets and phones that prefers not to be named.

Entrust, acquired four years ago by investment firm Thoma Bravo, is thriving, according to public statements, which said Entrust exceeded business plans last year by reaching $106 million in total revenue at an annual 14% compound average growth rate, with cloud subscription revenue in particular climbing.

Investment firm Thoma Bravo has been acquiring high-tech companies, many of them security firms, at a steady pace. Besides Entrust, in its collection there can be found Attachmate (which acquired NetIQ and Novell) and the security firms Blue Coat Systems, Crossbeam Systems, LANDesk Software, Network Instruments, and Tripwire (which just acquired nCircle).

Thoma Bravo management "doesn't force interaction between these companies," says Conner. "It's a loose federation."

But from Conner's perspective, the way that the executive board is structured means that executives both from Thoma Bravo and outside experts brought in as advisers watch what's going on and engage in some knowledge transfer to both try and improve individual company operations and share information that could be useful about things going on in other Thoma Bravo companies. "But they don't tell them what to do," Conner says. "We run ourselves as a company."

Ellen Messmer is senior editor at Network World, an IDG publication and website, where she covers news and technology trends related to information security. Twitter: @MessmerE. Email: emessmer@nww.com.

Read more about wide area network in Network World's Wide Area Network section.

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