5 Implementing encryption in networks

5.4 Link layer encryption and end-to-end encryption compared and combined

Activity 9

Comparing end-to-end encryption with link layer encryption, which do you think is better?

It would be tempting to believe that end-to-end encryption is the more secure method since the user data is encrypted for the entire journey of the data packets. However, the addressing information is transmitted in the clear and this allows, at the least, traffic analysis to take place.

Much useful information can be gleaned by learning where messages come from and go to, when they occur, and for what duration and frequency, as described in Section 3.3.

In contrast, with a link layer encryption system the data is at risk in each node since that is where the unencrypted data is processed. Furthermore, link layer encryption is expensive because each node has to be equipped with the means to carry out encryption and decryption.

An effective way of securing a network is to combine end-to-end with link layer encryption. The user data portion of a packet is encrypted at the host using an end-to-end encryption key. The packet is then transported across the nodes using link layer encryption, allowing each node to read the header information but not the user data. The user data is secure for the entire journey and only the packet headers are in the clear during the time the packet is processed by any node.

SAQ 9

A network security manager in an organisation has overall responsibility for ensuring that networks are operated in a secure manner. From the manager's perspective, what level of encryption would be most suitable and why?

Link layer encryption may be viewed as disadvantageous because of the possible vulnerability of nodes outside the organisation. Application layer encryption can be implemented directly and individually by users of applications, but is not necessarily under the control of a network manager. A network layer approach, however, allows implementation of organisational security policies in terms of IP addressing for example, and is also transparent to users.

In considering the application of any encryption scheme, the cost in terms of network delay, increased overheads and finance must be weighed against the need for protection. As always, there is a need to balance the advantages of a more secure network against the disadvantages of implementing security measures and the potential costs of data interception and network attack.