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How Does Database Encryption Work?

Jul 24th, 2020

How does data encryption work?

Organizations are generating massive amounts of data, with the World Economic Forum estimating 463 exabytes of data every day by 2025. As a result, securing sensitive data has become more critical than ever before. In addition, because businesses keep data in various databases and locations, having a comprehensive data protection policy is crucial to mitigating risk.
Database encryption offers an extra layer of security that protects sensitive data from unwanted intruders. It means that if someone unauthorized gets their hands on your data, they won’t be able to understand the underlying data. In many cases, encryption is typically a must-have requirement to satisfy compliance regulations such as HIPAA and PCI-DSS and keep security auditors happy.
So, now that we know that data encryption is important, let’s dive a bit deeper to explore how exactly data encryption works, what types of data encryption methods exist, and what is the best approach for organizations to encrypt their sensitive data.

How does database encryption work?

Before we explain how database encryption works, let us define encryption and how it can apply to different types of databases.
Encryption converts sensitive information or data in plaintext, which is easily readable, to ciphertext, which is hard to read. Encryption is a two-way process — plaintext can be encrypted to get ciphertext, and ciphertext can be decrypted to arrive back at the original plaintext. All databases, whether relational, NoSQL, or cloud-based, can use encryption to guard sensitive data stored within them.
Encryption is driven by a key, which is a piece of information, usually a string of numbers and letters that is used by a cryptographic algorithm (such as AES) to process data. The key length and choice of the encryption algorithm are what determines the strength of the encryption. Longer keys are more secure because they are harder to crack using extensive computation. For instance, a 256-bit encryption algorithm is stronger than a 128-bit encryption algorithm because additional compute resources are needed to crack the key. In this case, the attacker needs to figure out which 78-character string of 1’s and 0’s can break the encryption, and this can take a significant amount of time and processing power to get right.
There are two types of encryption – symmetric and asymmetric. In symmetric encryption, the same key is used to encrypt and decrypt the data. It is typically used when there is a lot of data involved (such as in a database) because it is faster. In asymmetric key encryption, a key pair consists of a public key and the private key. The private key is used to perform the encryption, and the public key is used to decrypt the data.
When it comes to applying encryption to databases, there are typically several key methods - using an Application Programming Interface (or API), through database plugins, or by leveraging Transparent Data Encryption (or TDE).
API encryption is a popular method of leveraging application-level encryption across many popular database solutions or integrating it with general security platforms.
Plugin-based encryption leverages an encryption module or agent typically installed on a database management system to perform the encryption. Although this method brings a bit more flexibility, extra management is needed to ensure that the plugin is available and running at all times.
Transparent Data Encryption (TDE) method leverages the database engine itself to encrypt and decrypt data. By virtue of its name, this method is transparent to the database operator and does not require any application-level changes to be implemented.

What is data encryption at rest?

Database encryption at rest refers specifically to the fact that data is encrypted when it's stored (at rest) on disk. An attacker can hack a cloud database or physically steal hardware that the data is stored on -- in either case, having your data encrypted at rest ensures that the attacker cannot understand (decrypt) the stolen data easily.
Databases use TDE to encrypt data, index and log files at rest. When a running database reads these files, data is decrypted on the fly before the database engine uses it. Likewise, data written by the application is encrypted by TDE before it is stored on a disk. All of this happens transparently, without the user noticing.

What is data encryption in transit?

Database encryption in transit refers specifically to the fact that data is encrypted while it is in motion between the database and the applications accessing the data. It can be applied while data travels through a private network or a public network communication channel. For example, suppose an application is accessing data stored in a database over the internet. In that case, the communication channel between the application and the database must be encrypted to ensure data confidentiality. Without adequate encryption in transit, an attacker can intercept the web request and eavesdrop on the data. Using transport-level security (TLS) or Secure Socket Layer (SSL), the communication channel can be encrypted to keep the data safe.
Fauna is a flexible, developer-friendly 100% ACID transactional database delivered as a secure, cloud API. Fauna has a rich security model that combines attribute-based access control with SSL and 3rd party authentication to offer strong security, which can be invoked directly from the browser.

If you enjoyed our blog, and want to work on systems and challenges related to globally distributed systems, serverless databases, GraphQL, and Jamstack, Fauna is hiring!

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