Completely Encrypted Data

I remember reading about, and doing some message exchange, with PGP, in the 90s. At the time I worked in a utility company and my boss and I were interested in whether encryption might be something we should implement. At the time, the integration with mail clients, and the relatively unsophisticated users limited our options, and we never moved forward, but I’ve always been interested in encryption and how it fits into our digital world.

The technical bits have gotten easier, with https encryption automatically enabling for most of us, though perhaps only preventing limited attacks. We’ve gotten more options in the data platform, some that work well, some that require a decent coding effort, but they do work to some extent. At least, they make auditors happy and prevent silly leakage from something like a lost disk drive.

One of the main areas where encryption has been controversial is in real time communications. Governments and law enforcement want to be able to eavesdrop on criminal activity, or maybe other activity, and individuals want privacy. This seems to be an ongoing battle between technical companies and lawmakers as to how to implement features and what limitations should be enabled. I noticed a story recently where Google is rolling out end to end encryption in its messaging apps.

That got me to thinking. We capture and store data, and we may have some sort of communications in our system. If users demanded, or application developers built, end to end encryption, do we care as data professionals? Certainly we would need to allow for binary storage, and we’d lack insight or indexing into the actual data, but certainly could work with metadata like user, time, etc.

There are also other considerations for us. If we store encrypted data, is this more of a hassle in dealing with legal requirements? Do we want to have another sort of PII in a key or have to constantly explain to management or legal staff that we can’t read the data because we don’t store the key? There are non-technical burdens that we might not want to shoulder.

I do think that more systems ought to allow end-to-end encryption for communications, and user-managed keys are a capability that plenty of us might want in a world where no one physically sees the database server or disks. While I do like the idea of secure enclaves, which are catching on in computing, I also think that key management, especially for users, needs to improve. Perhaps we need a password manager for certificates, with backup included, to ensure our end users can properly manage their certificates across devices and in the event of any personal disasters.

Steve Jones

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