In this post we will detail the other half of the decision tree for selecting a database encryption strategy: securing data from credentialed database users. Specifically, we are concerned with preventing misuse of data through individual or group accounts that provide access to data either directly or through another application. For the purpose of this discussion, we will be most interested in differentiating between accounts assigned users who use the data stored within the database, from accounts assigned to users who administer the database system itself. These are the two primary types of credentialed database users, and each needs to be treated differently because their access to database functions is radically different. As administrative accounts have far more capabilities and tools at their disposal, those threats are more varied and complex, making it much more difficult to insulate sensitive data. Also keep in mind that a ‘user’ in context of database accounts may be a single person, or it may be a group account associated with a number of users, or it may be an account utilized by a service or program.

With User Encryption, we assign access rights to the data we want secured on a user by user basis, and provide decryption keys only to the specified users who own that information, typically through a secondary authentication and authorization process. We call this User Encryption because we are both protecting sensitive data associated with each user account, and also responding to threats by type of user. This differs from Transparent Encryption in two important ways. First, we are now protecting data accessed through the normal database communication protocols as opposed to methods that bypass the database engine. Second, we are no longer encrypting everything in the database; rather it’s quite the opposite – we want to encrypt as little as possible so unsensitive information remains available to the rest of the database community. Conceptually this is very similar to the functionality provided by database groups, roles, and user authorization features. In practice it provides an additional layer of security and authentication where, in the event of a mistake or account compromise, exposed data remains encrypted and unreadable. As you can probably tell, since most regular users can be restricted using access controls, encryption at this level is mostly used to restrict administrative users.

They say if all you have is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail. That statement is relevant to this discussion of database encryption because the database vendors begin the conversation with their capabilities for column, table, row, and even cell level encryption. But these are simply tools. In fact, for what we want to accomplish, they may be the wrong tools. We need to fully understand the threat first, in this case credentialed users, and build our tool set and deployment model based upon that and not the other way around. We will discuss these encryption options in our next post on Implementation and Deployment, but need to fully understand the threat to be mitigated before selecting a technology. Interestingly enough, in the case of credentialed user threat analysis, we are proceeding from the assumption that something will go wrong, and someone will attempt to leverage credentials in such a way that they gain access to sensitive information within the database. In Part 2 of this series, we posed the questions “What do you want to protect?” and “What threat do you want to protect the data from?” Here, we add one more question: “Who do you want to protect the data from?” General users of the data or administrators of the system? Let’s look at these two user groups in detail:

  • Users: This is the general class of users who call upon the database to store, retrieve, report, and analyze data. They may do this directly through queries, but far more likely they connect to the database through another application. There are several common threats companies look to address for this class of user: providing protection against inadvertent disclosure from sloppy privilege management, inherited trust relationships, meeting a basic compliance requirement for encrypting sensitive data, or even providing finer-grained access control than is otherwise available through the application or database engine. Applications commonly use service accounts to connect to the database; those accounts are shared by multiple users, so the permissions may not be sufficiently granular to protect sensitive data. Users do not have the same privileges and access to the underlying infrastructure that administrators do, so the threat is exploitation of laxity in access controls. If protecting against this is our goal, we need to identify the sensitive information, determine who may use it, and encrypt it so that only the appropriate users have access. In these cases deployment options are flexible, as you can choose key management that is internal or external to the database, leverage the internal database encryption engine, and gain some latitude as to how much of the encryption and authentication is performed outside the database. Keep in mind that access controls are highly effective with much less performance impact, and they should be your first choice. Only encrypt when encryption really buys you additional security.
  • Administrators: The most common concern we hear companies discuss is their desire to mitigate damage in the event that a database administrator (DBA) account is compromised or misused by an employee. This is the single most difficult database security challenge to solve. The DBA role has rights to perform just about every function in the database, but no legitimate need to examine or use most of the data stored there. For example, the DBA has no need to examine Social Security Numbers, credit card data, or any customer data to maintain the database itself. This threat model dictates many of the deployment options. When the requirement is to protect the data from highly privileged administrators, enforcing separation of duties and providing a last line of defense for breached DBA accounts, then at the very least external key management is required. By encrypting and removing key management functions from DBA control, that sensitive information can be kept secure. External Key Management provides separation of duties between the management of the database and use of the data therein. The orchestration of the encryption/decryption functions are typically performed at the application and not inside the database, requiring modification to the application code. Use of the database engine’s built-in encryption capabilities may be possible, depending upon the vendor implementation, and most vendors provide API calls for third party encryption support while maintaining a single database ‘conversation’. This design addresses user level threats as well, and should be considered a superset.

Once we’ve decided which of these threats to address; we select tools, technologies, and deployment options that support our goals. We have established that at the very least, the two drivers will be distinguished by calling for internal vs. external key management. Depending upon your answers to the question “What data do you want to protect?”, we can now decide on what level we need to encrypt a (table, column, row, or cell), the type of key management we need, whether we will leverage the internal database encryption engine or use external services, and what changes need to be made to the business processing logic. We will cover these topics in our next post, and will follow that up with several common customer use cases.

One parting point we want to make with user encryption strategies, as it is a question that comes up over and over: “How is this different than access controls?” It’s all in how you use it. Encryption’s key value is in providing a level of granularity beyond what’s possible with access controls. This almost always translates to restricting administrators, since access controls are very effective for all other kinds of users. Another, more complex, option with encryption is to tie it to digital certificates outside the database, adding (essentially) another authentication factor. This increases security, because simply compromising a username and password isn’t sufficient to read the data, and so is particularly useful for protecting data utilized by service accounts.

For the most part, as you’ll see in our use cases, we only recommend user level database encryption under extremely limited circumstances. It’s a complex topic, and we haven’t even dug into the technology yet, but please don’t assume because we are spending so much time on it that it’s your best option. Just because it’s complicated and takes a long time to describe, doesn’t mean that’s what you should look at first.