Database Encryption, Part 7: Wrapping Up.

In our previous posts on database encryption, we presented three use cases as examples of how and why you’d use database encryption. These are not examples you will typically find cited. In fact, in most discussions and posts on database encryption, you will find experts and and analysts claiming this is a “must have” technology, a “regulatory requirement”, and critical to securing “data at rest”. Conceptually this is a great idea, as when we are not using data we would like to keep it secure. In practice, I call this “The Big Lie”: Enterprise databases are not “data at rest”. Rather the opposite is true, and databases contain information that is continuously in use. You don’t invest in a relational database just to have a place to store your data; there are far cheaper and easier ways to do that. You use relational database technology to facilitate transactional consistency, analytics, reports, and operations that continuously alter and reference data. Did you notice that “to protect data at rest” is not one of our “Three Laws of Data Encryption”? Through the course of this blog series, we have made a significant departure from the common examples and themes cited for how and why to use database encryption technologies. In trying to sift through the cruft of what is needed and what benefits you can expect, we needed to use different terminology and a different selection process, and reference use cases that more closely mimic customer perceptions. We believe that database encryption offers real value, but only for a select number of narrowly focused business problems. Throwing around overly general terms like “regulatory requirement” and “data security” without context muddies the entire discussion, makes it hard to get a handle on the segment’s real value propositions, and makes it very difficult to differentiate between database encryption and other forms of security. Most of the use cases we hear about are not useful, but rather a waste of time and money. So what do we recommend you use? Transparent Database Encryption: The problem of lost and stolen media is not going away any time soon, and as hardware is often recycled and resold – we are even seeing new avenues of data leakage. Transparent database encryption is a simple and effective option for media protection, securing the contents of the database as it moves physically or virtually. It satisfies many regulatory requirements that require encryption – for example most QSA’s find it acceptable for PCI compliance. The use case gets a little more complicated when you consider external OS, file level, and hard drive encryption products – which provide some or all of the same value. These options are perfectly adequate as long as you understand there will be some small differences in capabilities, deployment requirements, and cost. You will want to consider your roadmap for virtualized or cloud environments where underlying security controls provided by the external sources are not guaranteed. You will also need to verify that data remains encrypted when backed up, as some products have access to key and decrypt data prior to or during the archive process. This is important both because the data will need to be re-encrypted, and you lose separation of duties between DBA and IT administrator, two of the inherent advantages of this form of encryption. Regardless, we are advocates of transparent database encryption. User Level Encryption: We don’t recommend it for most scenarios. Not unless you are designing and building an application from scratch, or using a form of user level encryption that can be implemented transparently. User level encryption generally requires rewriting significant chucks of your application and database logic. Expect to make structural changes to the database schema, rewrite database queries and stored procedures, and rewrite any middleware or application layer code that talks to the database. To retrofit an existing application to get the greater degree of security offered through database encryption is not generally worth the expense. It can provide better separation of duties and possibly multi-factor authentication (depending upon how you implement the code), but they normally do not justify a complex and systemic overhaul of the application and database. Most organizations would be better off allocating that time and money into obfuscation, database activity monitoring, segmentation of DBA responsibilities within the database, and other security measures. If you are building your application and database from scratch, then we recommend building user level encryption in the initial implementation, as this allows you to avoid the complicated and risky rewriting – as a bonus you can quantify and control performance penalties as you build the system. Tokenization: While this isn’t encryption per se, it’s an interesting strategy that has recently experienced greater adoption in financial transaction environments, especially for PCI compliance. Basically, rather than encrypting sensitive data, you avoid having it in the database in the first place: you replace the credit card or account number with a random token. That token links back to a master database that serves as the direct tie to the transaction processing system. You then lock down and encrypt the master database (if you can), while only using the token throughout the rest of your infrastructure. This is an excellent option for distributed application environments, which are extremely common in financial and retail services. It reduces your overall exposure of by limiting the amount and scope of sensitive data internally, while still supporting a dynamic transaction environment. As with any security effort, having a clear understanding of the threats you need to address and the goals you need to meet are key to understanding and selecting a database encryption strategy. Share:

Read Post

Totally Transparent Research is the embodiment of how we work at Securosis. It’s our core operating philosophy, our research policy, and a specific process. We initially developed it to help maintain objectivity while producing licensed research, but its benefits extend to all aspects of our business.

Going beyond Open Source Research, and a far cry from the traditional syndicated research model, we think it’s the best way to produce independent, objective, quality research.

Here’s how it works:

  • Content is developed ‘live’ on the blog. Primary research is generally released in pieces, as a series of posts, so we can digest and integrate feedback, making the end results much stronger than traditional “ivory tower” research.
  • Comments are enabled for posts. All comments are kept except for spam, personal insults of a clearly inflammatory nature, and completely off-topic content that distracts from the discussion. We welcome comments critical of the work, even if somewhat insulting to the authors. Really.
  • Anyone can comment, and no registration is required. Vendors or consultants with a relevant product or offering must properly identify themselves. While their comments won’t be deleted, the writer/moderator will “call out”, identify, and possibly ridicule vendors who fail to do so.
  • Vendors considering licensing the content are welcome to provide feedback, but it must be posted in the comments - just like everyone else. There is no back channel influence on the research findings or posts.
    Analysts must reply to comments and defend the research position, or agree to modify the content.
  • At the end of the post series, the analyst compiles the posts into a paper, presentation, or other delivery vehicle. Public comments/input factors into the research, where appropriate.
  • If the research is distributed as a paper, significant commenters/contributors are acknowledged in the opening of the report. If they did not post their real names, handles used for comments are listed. Commenters do not retain any rights to the report, but their contributions will be recognized.
  • All primary research will be released under a Creative Commons license. The current license is Non-Commercial, Attribution. The analyst, at their discretion, may add a Derivative Works or Share Alike condition.
  • Securosis primary research does not discuss specific vendors or specific products/offerings, unless used to provide context, contrast or to make a point (which is very very rare).
    Although quotes from published primary research (and published primary research only) may be used in press releases, said quotes may never mention a specific vendor, even if the vendor is mentioned in the source report. Securosis must approve any quote to appear in any vendor marketing collateral.
  • Final primary research will be posted on the blog with open comments.
  • Research will be updated periodically to reflect market realities, based on the discretion of the primary analyst. Updated research will be dated and given a version number.
    For research that cannot be developed using this model, such as complex principles or models that are unsuited for a series of blog posts, the content will be chunked up and posted at or before release of the paper to solicit public feedback, and provide an open venue for comments and criticisms.
  • In rare cases Securosis may write papers outside of the primary research agenda, but only if the end result can be non-biased and valuable to the user community to supplement industry-wide efforts or advances. A “Radically Transparent Research” process will be followed in developing these papers, where absolutely all materials are public at all stages of development, including communications (email, call notes).
    Only the free primary research released on our site can be licensed. We will not accept licensing fees on research we charge users to access.
  • All licensed research will be clearly labeled with the licensees. No licensed research will be released without indicating the sources of licensing fees. Again, there will be no back channel influence. We’re open and transparent about our revenue sources.

In essence, we develop all of our research out in the open, and not only seek public comments, but keep those comments indefinitely as a record of the research creation process. If you believe we are biased or not doing our homework, you can call us out on it and it will be there in the record. Our philosophy involves cracking open the research process, and using our readers to eliminate bias and enhance the quality of the work.

On the back end, here’s how we handle this approach with licensees:

  • Licensees may propose paper topics. The topic may be accepted if it is consistent with the Securosis research agenda and goals, but only if it can be covered without bias and will be valuable to the end user community.
  • Analysts produce research according to their own research agendas, and may offer licensing under the same objectivity requirements.
  • The potential licensee will be provided an outline of our research positions and the potential research product so they can determine if it is likely to meet their objectives.
  • Once the licensee agrees, development of the primary research content begins, following the Totally Transparent Research process as outlined above. At this point, there is no money exchanged.
  • Upon completion of the paper, the licensee will receive a release candidate to determine whether the final result still meets their needs.
  • If the content does not meet their needs, the licensee is not required to pay, and the research will be released without licensing or with alternate licensees.
  • Licensees may host and reuse the content for the length of the license (typically one year). This includes placing the content behind a registration process, posting on white paper networks, or translation into other languages. The research will always be hosted at Securosis for free without registration.

Here is the language we currently place in our research project agreements:

Content will be created independently of LICENSEE with no obligations for payment. Once content is complete, LICENSEE will have a 3 day review period to determine if the content meets corporate objectives. If the content is unsuitable, LICENSEE will not be obligated for any payment and Securosis is free to distribute the whitepaper without branding or with alternate licensees, and will not complete any associated webcasts for the declining LICENSEE. Content licensing, webcasts and payment are contingent on the content being acceptable to LICENSEE. This maintains objectivity while limiting the risk to LICENSEE. Securosis maintains all rights to the content and to include Securosis branding in addition to any licensee branding.

Even this process itself is open to criticism. If you have questions or comments, you can email us or comment on the blog.