What is FIPS 140-2? Who needs FIPS?

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Understanding FIPS 140-2

An Introduction to FIPS 140-2 Encryption Standard

Are you familiar with the term “FIPS 140-2”? If not, then you are at the right place, as in this article, we will explore what FIPS 140-2 is and delve into its complexities. Additionally, we will address common questions like – Who requires FIPS 140-2 compliance? How to achieve FIPS 140-2 compliant status? etc. So, without any additional ado, let’s start exploring.

What is FIPS 140-2?

Federal Information Processing Standard (FIPS) 140-2 is a globally recognized standard for evaluating the security and efficacy of cryptographic hardware or modules. NIST was developed by NIST in 2001 to safeguard government data and ensure that individuals working with the government adhere to specific safety standards before gaining access to sensitive information. But now, numerous organizations have adopted it as their preferred method for safeguarding data and defining minimum security requirements for cryptographic modules.

If a product is labeled as FIPS 140-2 compliant, it simply means that the embedded cryptographic hardware (within the product or the whole product itself) has undergone rigorous testing and validation while ensuring that it (cryptographic hardware) meets stringent security standards, effectively protecting confidential information.

FIPS 140-2 Security Levels

FIPS 140-2 establishes a clear framework by defining four levels of security, each with its own specific requirements. These security levels help determine the strength and reliability of the cryptographic hardware.

  • Level 1: Establishing a Secure Foundation
  • Level 2: Strengthening Physical Security
  • Level 3: Advanced Physical Security Measures
  • Level 4: Unmatched Protection

Establishing a Secure Foundation

Security Level 1 serves as the groundwork for implementing fundamental security requirements. It emphasizes utilizing algorithms approved by FIPS. However, it does not enforce extensive physical security measures. Modules operating at this level can be employed in operating systems that have not undergone evaluation.

Strengthening Physical Security

Security Level 2 enhances the physical security of modules by incorporating tamper-evident technology. This technology makes it more challenging for unauthorized individuals to gain physical access to a cryptographic module.

To meet Level 2 requirements, cryptographic modules must include tamper-evident coatings, pick-resistant locks, etc. In level 2, role-based authentication becomes essential to ensure that only authorized operators can assume specific roles and control module functions. Furthermore, Level 2 necessitates the use of an evaluated operating system.

Advanced Physical Security Measures

Security Level 3 takes physical security to the next level by introducing zeroization circuitry and robust module enclosures. When the cryptographic module detects that someone unauthorized is trying to access the content forcefully, the zeroization feature obliterates all the sensitive data.

Level 3 requires identity-based authentication and mandates the use of an evaluated operating system. Moreover, it demands the physical separation of ports to safeguard sensitive information, such as cryptographic service providers, software components, etc., from unauthorized access.

Unmatched Protection

Security Level 4 provides the utmost level of protection. It encompasses various physical security mechanisms designed to detect and counter all unauthorized physical attacks. The probability of successfully identifying and responding to these attacks is significantly high at Level 4, as the module’s contents are immediately erased upon unauthorized access.

Like Levels 2 and 3, a trusted operating system environment is obligatory at Level 4. Environmental Failure Protection (EFP) features or Environmental Failure Testing (EFT) is necessary to ensure the module’s resilience to extreme environmental conditions.

How to Achieve FIPS 140-2 Compliant Status?

To obtain FIPS 140-2 compliant status, the cryptographic module (including the strength of the algorithm and its practical implementation) must undergo testing by the NIST labs. The process may take up to 18 months and involves the following steps:

  1. Algorithm Testing and Evaluation
  2. End-to-End Module Testing
  3. The Certification Process

Algorithm Testing and Evaluation

The first step is to undergo algorithm testing and evaluation by NIST. The algorithms implemented in the vendor’s code undergo thorough testing and evaluation during this process. It is crucial that these algorithms utilize encryption methods that are certified by CAVP (Cryptographic Algorithm Validation Program). NIST also verifies that the algorithms are being used as asserted and conducts checks to ensure that there is adequate entropy and randomness in the cryptographic system, thus ensuring the strength and effectiveness of the algorithms used for data protection and security.

End-to-End Module Testing

For the second step, NIST carefully evaluates all functions of the cryptographic module and thoroughly inspects the documentation accompanying the module. This examination scrutinizes the CAVP-certified algorithms used within the module to ensure proper implementation. NIST’s verification process aims to confirm that the approved algorithms are being utilized correctly, thus ensuring the integrity and security of the cryptographic module.

The Certification Process

Upon completing the testing process, a CMVP certificate is issued that serves as a testament to the cryptographic module’s compliance with FIPS 140-2 standards. It signifies that the module has undergone rigorous testing and evaluation by NIST, ensuring its adherence to the highest security standards for encryption.

Who Needs FIPS 140-2?

  • Government Agencies
  • Defense and Military
  • Financial Institutions
  • Healthcare Organization
  • Energy and Utilities
  • Technology and Software Companies

Government Agencies

Government agencies, encompassing both federal and local bodies, frequently impose the utilization of the FIPS 140-2 standard within their systems. This requirement guarantees the security and confidentiality of sensitive governmental data, safeguarding it from unauthorized access or compromise.

Defense and Military

The defense and military sectors deal with sensitive information and communications that require robust encryption and security measures. This is where FIPS 140-2 comes into the picture, as it safeguards classified military communications and protects critical infrastructure.

Financial Institutions

Financial institutions, including banks, credit unions, and similar establishments, handle substantial volumes of delicate customer data. Such information encompasses financial transactions and personal details. Adhering to the FIPS 140-2 standard assures this data’s secure transmission and storage, thereby shielding it against tampering.

Healthcare Organizations

Healthcare organizations, like healthcare providers, hospitals, and medical institutions, grapple with confidential patient records and protected health information. To maintain the privacy and confidentiality of electronic medical records, patient data, and communication systems, adherence to FIPS 140-2 compliance becomes crucial. This benchmark acts as a protective shield, preserving the sensitive nature of patient information and ensuring its integrity.

Energy and Utilities

Energy and utility companies often rely on cryptographic systems, such as smart grids and control systems, to protect their infrastructure. FIPS 140-2 compliance ensures the integrity and confidentiality of critical energy and utility infrastructure.

Technology and Software Companies

Many technology and software companies provide encryption products and cryptographic modules for various applications. FIPS 140-2 compliance is crucial for these companies to meet the security requirements of their customers, particularly those in regulated industries.


FIPS 140-2 is widely acknowledged as a benchmark for evaluating cryptographic hardware or modules’ security and efficacy. Initially developed to safeguard government data, numerous organizations now utilize it as their preferred approach to safeguard sensitive information.

FIPS 140-2 establishes four tiers of security, each with its own set of requirements, to guarantee the robustness & dependability of cryptographic modules. Government agencies, defense and military sectors, financial institutions, healthcare organizations, energy and utility providers, as well as technology and software firms, all derive advantages from adhering to FIPS 140-2 compliance to protect their data and infrastructure. In short, by upholding this standard, these entities can ensure secure transmission, storage, and preservation of sensitive information, thereby upholding confidentiality and integrity.

Janki Mehta

Janki Mehta

Janki Mehta is a Cyber-Security Enthusiast who constantly updates herself with new advancements in the Web/Cyber Security niche. Along with theoretical knowledge, she also implements her practical expertise in day-to-day tasks and helps others to protect themselves from threats.