Database Encryption: If It's So Good, Why Isn't Everyone Doing It?

Posted: Fri, 7 April 2023 | permalink | No comments

a wordcloud of organisations who have been reported to have had data breaches in 2022
Just some of the organisations that leaked data in 2022

It seems like just about every day there’s another report of another company getting “hacked” and having its sensitive data (or, worse, the sensitive data of its customers) stolen. Sometimes, people’s most intimate information gets dumped for the world to see. Other times it’s “just” used for identity theft, extortion, and other crimes. In the least worst case, the attacker gets cold feet, but people suffer stress and inconvenience from having to replace identity documents.

A great way to protect information from being leaked is to encrypt it. We encrypt data while it’s being sent over the Internet (with TLS), and we encrypt it when it’s “at rest” (with disk or volume encryption). Yet, everyone’s data seems to still get stolen on a regular basis. Why?

Because the data is kept online in an unencrypted form, sitting in the database while its being used. This means that attackers can just connect to the database, or trick the application into dumping the database, and all the data is just lying there, waiting to be misused.

It’s Not the Devs’ Fault, Though

You may be thinking that leaving an entire database full of sensitive data unencrypted seems like a terrible idea. And you’re right: it is a terrible idea. But it’s seemingly unavoidable.

The problem is that in order to do what a database does best (query, sort, and aggregate data), it needs to be able to know what the data is. When you encrypt data, however, all the database sees is a locked box.

a locked box
Not very useful for a database

The database can’t tell what’s in the locked box – whether it’s a number equal to 42, or a date that’s less than 2023-01-01, or a string that contains the substring “foo”. Every value is just an opaque blob of “stuff”, and the database is rendered completely useless.

Since modern applications usually rely pretty heavily on their database, it’s essentially impossible to build an application if you’ve turned your database into a glorified flat-file by encrypting everything in it. Thus, it’s hardly surprising that developers have to leave the data laying around unencrypted, for anyone to come along and take.

Introducing Enquo

I said before that having data unencrypted in a database is seemingly unavoidable. That’s because there are some innovative cryptographic techniques that can make it possible to query encrypted data.

Andy Dwyer being amazed

The purpose of the Enquo project is to provide a common set of cryptographic primitives that implement ENcrypted QUery Operations (ie “Enquo”), and integrate those operations into databases, ORMs, and anywhere else that could benefit. The end goal is to provide the ability to encrypt all the data stored in any database server, while still allowing the data to be queried and aggregated.

So far, the project consists of these components:

Support for other languages and ORMs is designed to be as straightforward as possible, and integration with other databases is mostly dependent on their own extensibility.

The project’s core tenets emphasise both uncompromising security, and a friendly developer experience.

Naturally, all Enquo code is open source, released under the MIT licence.

Would You Like To Know More?

Desire to know more intensifies
Everyone who uses a database...

If all this sounds relevant to your interests:

  1. If you use Ruby on Rails and PostgreSQL, you’re halfway home already. Follow the ActiveEnquo getting started tutorial and see how much of your data Enquo can already protect. When you find data you want to encrypt but can’t, tell me about it.

    • If you use Ruby and PostgreSQL with another ORM, such as Sequel, writing a plugin to support Enquo shouldn’t be too difficult. The ActiveEnquo code should give you a good start. If you get stuck, get in touch.
  2. If you use PostgreSQL with another programming language, tell me what language you use and we’ll work together to get bindings for that library created.

  3. If you use another database server, support is coming for your database of choice eventually, but at present there’s no timeline on support. On the off chance that you happen to be a hard-core database hacking expert, and would like to work on getting Enquo support in your preferred database server, I’d love to talk to you.

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