Dark Reading is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.


A New Way To Choose Database Encryption

I can't count how many times I've been in a meeting when someone tosses out the phrase, "Oh, we'll just encrypt the database." Yeah. Right. Good luck with that.

I can't count how many times I've been in a meeting when someone tosses out the phrase, "Oh, we'll just encrypt the database."

Yeah. Right. Good luck with that.Having covered database encryption for about eight years as an analyst, I've learned that it is one of the single most confusing areas of database management and security. While marketing materials try their best to make it seem as if encryption is never more than a checkbox away, and in some cases that might be true, determining which kind of database encryption is best for any particular application is rarely so easy.

A couple of years ago I started writing a guide to picking the right encryption option. Then when I started working with Adrian Lane (who blogs on database security here for Dark Reading), we decided to collaborate and push the paper out the door.

There's a reason it took us another 18 months to actually finish the darn thing.

There is an incredible array of options available for database encryption -- everything from encrypting the media the database resides on, to encrypting the files, to encrypting at the application level, and just using the database for storage. With these come a corresponding matrix of potential problems: Some types of encryption limit the kinds of searches you can run. Others don't affect performance, but don't really improve security at all. And since the databases you want to encrypt are often your most critical and frequently part of complex, distributed systems, the encryption has to operate with the same degree of reliability in the midst of the heterogeneity.

Our first attempts at a framework focused on the technical issues of where the encryption engine, key management, and authorization resided. That didn't last long as we realized it didn't mesh with the decision-making process. Eventually we realized that picking the right encryption option is based first on the threat model, and then on the technology issues.

There are two major threat vectors to a database. Either you are protecting against someone with credentialed access to the system (including an attacker who cracks in through a user account), or you are protecting against a noncredentialed user (like a sysadmin peeking at the raw database files). For a credentialed user, you are then protecting against someone with administrative-level or standard access.

If the threat vector you are worried about is outside the database, then life is a lot easier. Your best option is usually to encrypt the database files (keeping the keys someplace else) or to use the transparent encryption option built into your database management system. Not to oversimplify, but this is generally a straightforward process.

For credentialed database users, if it's just a standard user your first bet is transparent/external encryption combined with properly configured access controls. Access controls work pretty darn well, and encryption isn't a substitute. Even if you encrypt more granularly, a lot of people tie the encryption to the user account and thus lose some of the security advantages.

If you want to protect against administrative database users (including, sometimes, to limit privilege escalation issues), then you need to look at more granular options, like application encryption, user-based column encryption, or even tokenization (which is rapidly growing in popularity, especially for PCI). These aren't bad to build into a new system, but can be very difficult to add to legacy application/database combinations.

I realize most of this seems incredibly obvious, but in the countless conversations I've had about database encryption, people usually get so hung up on the technology first that they fail to properly evaluate or pick the best option.

I've barely skimmed the surface here; if you want more details you can download our paper "Understanding and Selecting a Database Encryption or Tokenization Solution" for free, without any kind of registration, at Securosis.com. It includes a full version of the decision tree I just described, as well in-depth coverage of each of the encryption options.

Rich Mogull is founder of Securosis LLC and a former security industry analyst for Gartner Inc. Special to Dark Reading. Rich has twenty years experience in information security, physical security, and risk management. He specializes in cloud security, data security, application security, emerging security technologies, and security management. He is also the principle course designer of the ... View Full Bio


Recommended Reading:

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
COVID-19: Latest Security News & Commentary
Dark Reading Staff 7/13/2020
Omdia Research Launches Page on Dark Reading
Tim Wilson, Editor in Chief, Dark Reading 7/9/2020
Mobile App Fraud Jumped in Q1 as Attackers Pivot from Browsers
Jai Vijayan, Contributing Writer,  7/10/2020
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Current Issue
Special Report: Computing's New Normal, a Dark Reading Perspective
This special report examines how IT security organizations have adapted to the "new normal" of computing and what the long-term effects will be. Read it and get a unique set of perspectives on issues ranging from new threats & vulnerabilities as a result of remote working to how enterprise security strategy will be affected long term.
Flash Poll
The Threat from the Internetand What Your Organization Can Do About It
The Threat from the Internetand What Your Organization Can Do About It
This report describes some of the latest attacks and threats emanating from the Internet, as well as advice and tips on how your organization can mitigate those threats before they affect your business. Download it today!
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
PUBLISHED: 2020-07-13
Affected versions of Atlassian Jira Server and Data Center allow remote attackers to view titles of a private project via an Insecure Direct Object References (IDOR) vulnerability in the Administration Permission Helper. The affected versions are before version 7.13.6, from version 8.0.0 before 8.5....
PUBLISHED: 2020-07-13
The login.jsp resource in Jira before version 8.5.2, and from version 8.6.0 before version 8.6.1 allows remote attackers to redirect users to a different website which they may use as part of performing a phishing attack via an open redirect in the os_destination parameter.
PUBLISHED: 2020-07-13
Affected versions of Atlassian Jira Server and Data Center allow remote attackers to access sensitive information without being authenticated in the Global permissions screen. The affected versions are before version 8.8.0.
PUBLISHED: 2020-07-13
The Gadget API in Atlassian Jira Server and Data Center in affected versions allows remote attackers to make Jira unresponsive via repeated requests to a certain endpoint in the Gadget API. The affected versions are before version 8.5.4, and from version 8.6.0 before 8.6.1.
PUBLISHED: 2020-07-13
Affected versions of Atlassian Jira Server and Data Center allow remote attackers to inject arbitrary HTML or JavaScript via a cross site scripting (XSS) vulnerability in the Add Field module. The affected versions are before version 8.7.0.