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.

Perimeter

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
Comments
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
COVID-19: Latest Security News & Commentary
Dark Reading Staff 8/3/2020
Pen Testers Who Got Arrested Doing Their Jobs Tell All
Kelly Jackson Higgins, Executive Editor at Dark Reading,  8/5/2020
Browsers to Enforce Shorter Certificate Life Spans: What Businesses Should Know
Kelly Sheridan, Staff Editor, Dark Reading,  7/30/2020
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Video
Cartoon Contest
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 Changing Face of Threat Intelligence
The Changing Face of Threat Intelligence
This special report takes a look at how enterprises are using threat intelligence, as well as emerging best practices for integrating threat intel into security operations and incident response. Download it today!
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
CVE-2020-17366
PUBLISHED: 2020-08-05
An issue was discovered in NLnet Labs Routinator 0.1.0 through 0.7.1. It allows remote attackers to bypass intended access restrictions or to cause a denial of service on dependent routing systems by strategically withholding RPKI Route Origin Authorisation ".roa" files or X509 Certificate...
CVE-2020-9036
PUBLISHED: 2020-08-05
Jeedom through 4.0.38 allows XSS.
CVE-2020-15127
PUBLISHED: 2020-08-05
In Contour ( Ingress controller for Kubernetes) before version 1.7.0, a bad actor can shut down all instances of Envoy, essentially killing the entire ingress data plane. GET requests to /shutdown on port 8090 of the Envoy pod initiate Envoy's shutdown procedure. The shutdown procedure includes flip...
CVE-2020-15132
PUBLISHED: 2020-08-05
In Sulu before versions 1.6.35, 2.0.10, and 2.1.1, when the "Forget password" feature on the login screen is used, Sulu asks the user for a username or email address. If the given string is not found, a response with a `400` error code is returned, along with a error message saying that th...
CVE-2020-7298
PUBLISHED: 2020-08-05
Unexpected behavior violation in McAfee Total Protection (MTP) prior to 16.0.R26 allows local users to turn off real time scanning via a specially crafted object making a specific function call.