Another day, another data breach, and another round of calls for companies to encrypt their databases. Cryptography is a powerful tool, but in cases like this, it’s not going to help. If your OS is secure, you don’t need the crypto; if it’s not, the crypto won’t protect your data.
In a case like the Anthem breach, the really sensitive databases are always in use. This means that they’re effectively decrypted: the database management systems (DBMS) are operating on cleartext, which means that the decryption key is present in RAM somewhere. It may be in the OS, it may be in the DBMS, or it may even be in the application itself (though that’s less likely if a large relational database is in use, which it probably is). What’s to stop an attacker from obtaining that key, or perhaps from just making database queries?
The answer, in theory, is other forms of access control. Perhaps the DBMS requires authentication, or operating system permissions will prevent the attacker from getting at the keys. Unfortunately—and as these many data breaches show—these defenses are not configured properly or aren’t doing the job. If that’s the case, though, adding encryption isn’t going to help; the attacker will just go around the crypto. There’s a very simple rule of thumb here: Encryption is most useful when OS protections cannot work.
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