What is FIPS 140-2?
FIPS (Federal Information Processing Standard) 140-2 is the benchmark for validating the effectiveness of cryptographic hardware. If a product has a FIPS 140-2 certificate you know that it has been tested and formally validated by the U.S. and Canadian Governments. Although FIPS 140-2 is a U.S./Canadian Federal standard, FIPS 140-2 compliance has been widely adopted around the world in both governmental and non-governmental sectors as a practical security benchmark and realistic best practice.
Organizations use the FIPS 140-2 standard to ensure that the hardware they select meets specific security requirements. The FIPS certification standard defines four increasing, qualitative levels of security:
Level 1: Requires production-grade equipment and externally tested algorithms.
Level 2: Adds requirements for physical tamper-evidence and role-based authentication. Software implementations must run on an Operating System approved to Common Criteria at EAL2.
Level 3: Adds requirements for physical tamper-resistance and identity-based authentication. There must also be physical or logical separation between the interfaces by which “critical security parameters” enter and leave the module. Private keys can only enter or leave in encrypted form.
Level 4: This level makes the physical security requirements more stringent, requiring the ability to be tamper-active, erasing the contents of the device if it detects various forms of environmental attack.
The FIPS 140-2 standard technically allows for software-only implementations at level 3 or 4, but applies such stringent requirements that none have been validated.
For many organizations, requiring FIPS certification at FIPS 140 level 3 is a good compromise between effective security, operational convenience, and choice in the marketplace.