Deterministic Encryption for Database Primary Keys

Diagram illustrating a digital fortress protected by a lock.


Explore the benefits of deterministic encryption for database keys, enhancing security while maintaining unique constraints. This post covers how it functions, compares to traditional methods, and offers practical tips for successful implementation.

By the end of this article you will be able to:

  • Grasp deterministic encryption concepts for database key management.
  • Compare deterministic vs. traditional encryption methods.
  • Assess security implications when implementing deterministic encryption.
  • Apply best practices for secure implementation in your database


Deterministic encryption is a cryptographic technique where a given plaintext always encrypts to the same ciphertext, making it particularly useful when you want to compare two encrypted values for equality without having to decrypt them first. Imagine a user management system where users have either a username, an email address, or both to log in with, using a corresponding password. In this system, unique constraints on both the username and email address fields should be enforced, meaning that duplicate usernames, for example, are not allowed. We would like to create a unique hash key (i.e. primary key) for each user based on their username and email address, and store this key in a database.

While usernames may be less sensitive, email addresses are highly sensitive and should be encrypted before being stored in the database. This begs the question, at which layer should the email address encryption take place? In this article, we will delve into the workings of deterministic encryption, evaluate its security, and compare it with other approaches, all the while exploring best practices for its implementation in a user management system.

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    How Symmetric Encryption Typically Works

    The primary goal of symmetric encryption is to render data unreadable to unauthorized users, ensuring that a given input (plaintext) combined with a secret key consistently produces varying outputs (ciphertexts). This prevents attackers from inferring the plaintext, especially when encrypting low cardinality inputs, such as “true” and “false”.

    Using NaCL secretbox encryption as an example, the inputs include a site key, plaintext, and nonce. The site key is a shared secret key among system users, while the plaintext represents the value to be encrypted. The nonce, a unique random value for each encryption operation, ensures that the same plaintext and site key generate different ciphertexts.

    NaCL secretbox encryption

    How Deterministic Encryption Works

    In contrast to traditional encryption, deterministic encryption is a cryptographic technique where a given plaintext consistently encrypts into the same ciphertext. Specifically, using NaCL secretbox, a nonce is deterministically calculated based on the site key and plaintext instead of being chosen at random.

    NaCL secretbox deterministicencryption

    Consider a scenario where users log in with their email addresses, which must be stored as hash keys in a DynamoDB table. By employing deterministic encryption to encrypt their email addresses at the application layer before storage, encrypted email addresses can be compared within the database without decryption.

    This raises the question of why one should use encryption at the application layer when services like DynamoDB already offer encryption-at-rest. The following section addresses this.

    Security Evaluation & Threat Model

    In our user management system example, evaluating the security of deterministic encryption requires establishing a threat model. We’ll focus on protecting users’ email addresses in case of a database leak or unauthorized access, while assuming a lower risk of the site key, used for encryption, being leaked or compromised.

    This assumption arises from the fact that databases, as primary repositories of sensitive data, are frequently targeted by attackers. In contrast, the site key may be better protected through strict access controls, making it less visible to outside threats. A well-protected site key, potentially employing hardware security modules (HSMs) or other secure key management solutions, has a lower likelihood of being compromised than a database, which could be breached via vectors such as database backups or out-of-band accesses.

    Inadequately secured database backups pose a risk for data leaks. Attackers accessing these backups could obtain sensitive information, including stored email addresses. However, with deterministic encryption, email addresses remain encrypted even when backups are accessed, rendering the data useless without the corresponding site key.

    Unauthorized database access can also occur via out-of-band access, such as through the AWS console. Malicious insiders or compromised accounts with console access may view or modify stored data. In these cases, deterministic encryption applied at the application layer helps protect email addresses from exposure or tampering, as they remain encrypted in the database.

    It’s worth noting the importance of email addresses as unique constraints on users. An attacker viewing all encrypted email addresses, having high cardinality and not reused, cannot infer the plaintext email addresses due to their unique nature.

    Best Practices and Tips for Implementing Deterministic Encryption

    When implementing deterministic encryption, key management is crucial. Utilizing secure services like AWS Secrets Manager can help protect the site key, preventing easy access for attackers. If site key protection is compromised, the security benefits of deterministic encryption may be lost. Complement this protection with strong authentication and authorization mechanisms, enforcing proper access control and safeguarding the data against unauthorized access.

    Regular security audits and vulnerability assessments play an essential role in maintaining a robust security posture. Periodically examine system components and architecture to identify potential risks and compliance issues, allowing timely mitigation and ensuring effectiveness of the deterministic encryption implementation.

    Finally, deterministic encryption should be part of a comprehensive, holistic security strategy with layered defenses. Recognize its limitations and integrate additional security measures like digital signatures, audit logs, and intrusion detection systems as needed. Building a robust security ecosystem, in addition to applying deterministic encryption, aids in maintaining the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of sensitive data.


    Deterministic encryption offers valuable protection for sensitive data in user management systems, enabling efficient operations on encrypted data while maintaining confidentiality. However, it’s essential to remember that a comprehensive security approach, extending beyond encryption techniques, is vital in ensuring an overall robust and resilient data protection ecosystem. By combining deterministic encryption with robust key management, access control mechanisms, and layered defenses, you can create a secure environment for sensitive information and safeguard your users against potential threats