Understanding Keys and Certificates with Transparent Data Encryption (TDE)

I’ve been taking a bit of a deep dive into understanding Transparent Data Encryption (TDE). As part of that I’ve been reading a lot of blog posts, stack overflow answers and technical documentation to try and deepen my knowledge.

Within that I’ve found a lot of contradiction I’ve needed to overcome. In particular this has been around what objects you need to recover an encrypted database to another SQL Server – be that when you’re doing a straight restore, working with log shipping, or using Availability Groups.

Most of the solutions offered work, but many describe additional steps that are not necessary. I feel that part of the problem is that people are misunderstanding the basics about encryption keys in SQL Server, so I thought it would be worthwhile going over that in a bit of detail before digging deeper into TDE in general.

I think it’s important to understand this stuff clearly, because then you have a clear view of when you’re protected and when you are vulnerable. If we’re engaging in encryption then we clearly have a desire for security – to be sure of that we have to be clear in our understanding.

Keys in SQL usually have three components (and this is the same for the Column Encryption Keys in Always Encrypted that I spoke about previously):
Understanding Keys and Certificates with Always Encrypted

The Key itself – Usually can be thought of a number expressed in binary format. Long and random enough to make it difficult to guess even by brute force attempts.

Another object that’s used to protect the key – This object might be another key, it might be a certificate, or it might just be a password. This object is used the encrypt the key.

The encrypted value of the key – Formed from the original value of the key, encrypted by the protecting object.

In SQL we rarely (maybe even never) see the actual value of the key. We have the encrypted version and we usually know what object was used to encrypt it. That second object may even be another key that is itself encrypted by a third object.

When it comes down to it though, the actual thing that is used to encrypt or decrypt data is the Key itself, not the encrypted value, and not the hierarchy of objects that may have been used to protect it.

So, all I really need to read your data, is your key.

Let’s look at that in the context of TDE. Here’s a standard diagram from books online that shows the hierarchy of encryption for TDE. There are other ways of working with TDE but this is the standard:

TDE_Key_Hierarchy

So, right down at the bottom of the diagram is the Database Encryption Key (DEK). That is what is used to encrypt/decrypt the data in the database. It sits in the database itself. So when you backup the database the DEK is held in the backup.

BUT – the DEK is itself encrypted by the certificate that sits in the master database, so even if someone has your backup they can’t access the key – and nor can any system they try and restore your backup to. So they also can’t access your data.

To be able to decrypt the DEK, the certificate is required. In fact, what is really required is the private key associated with the certificate as that’s what’s used for encrypting stuff. The private key however is itself encrypted by the Database Master Key (DMK) that sits in the master database.

So you’ll be forgiven at this stage for thinking that in order to read our backup of the database, we need the backup (containing the DEK), the Certificate (include the private key) and the DMK.

When you realise that the DMK is itself encrypted by the Service Master Key(SMK), and that the SMK is also encrypted then you might think you need to include those too – and whatever encrypted the SMK.

Where will it end!?

In reality we just go back to our certificate and its associated private key.
Let’s say I have a certificate called MyTDECert. I can (and must) backup this up outside of the database. If this is lost, then so is my data. The command for backing it up looks something like this:

BACKUP CERTIFICATE MyTDECert   
TO FILE = 'D:\Temp\MattTest\MyTDECert'  
WITH PRIVATE KEY   
(  
    FILE = 'D:\Temp\MattTest\SQLPrivateKeyFile',  
    ENCRYPTION BY PASSWORD = 'C0rrecth0rserbatterystab1e'  
);  
GO

When I back this up I specify a password to encrypt the Private Key. Remember that the Private Key was already encrypted by the DMK? Well, this backup certificate command doesn’t just encrypt it a second time – what would be the point of that? No, the reason I need to supply a password is that the command retrieves the unencrypted version of the private key, re-encrypts it with the password INSTEAD and then that is what gets save to disk.

Remember that at the point I run the command SQL has access to all the objects, all the way up the chain, that are used for the encryption. So it has no problem getting the actual value for the Private Key.

Now, when I restore that certificate to – let’s say another instance of SQL Server)- the command looks like this:

CREATE CERTIFICATE TestSQLServerCert   
FROM FILE = 'D:\Temp\MattTest\MyTDECert'  
WITH PRIVATE KEY   
(  
    FILE = 'D:\Temp\MattTest\SQLPrivateKeyFile',  
    DECRYPTION BY PASSWORD = 'C0rrecth0rserbatterystab1e' 
);  
GO  

Considering what the BACKUP command did, you can intuit that the above command will do the opposite. It first of all decrypts the Private Key using the password supplied. Then it encrypts it again using the DMK for the local instance before saving it in the master database locally.

Remember it is the Actual Values of Keys that get used for encryption – not their encrypted value. So the private key for this certificate is exactly the same as it was where we backed it up from – though the encrypted value will be different as it has used a different DMK.

So if I now go to restore a copy of a database whose DEK has been encrypted with this certificate onto the new instance I can do so without any problem.

Many articles will tell you that you also need to migrate the DMK from your old instance, and some will say that you also need the SMK. This is simply not correct – I mean, it will work if you do that (in the right order) but it isn’t necessary.

And in some scenarios it may simply not be possible. Imagine that the instance you are migrating to is already using encryption based on its current SMK and DMK, if you replace those with the ones from the instance you are migrating from then you are going to break existing stuff.

So all you need to restore a database protected by TDE is the database backup, the certificate/private key, and the password specified when the certificate and key were backup up.

Equally that’s all someone else needs too, so make sure those things are protected.

In my next post we’ll look at a possible way of hacking TDE and the additional steps you need to protect yourself to make sure TDE is giving you the level of protection you expect. When that post is live you should be able to see a link to it in the comments.

11 thoughts on “Understanding Keys and Certificates with Transparent Data Encryption (TDE)

  1. I’m looking for Data Architecture position if you see one: I have an extensive use of the following SSIS, SSRS, T-SQL, DQS and MDS and Data Modelling. my email is fsfehico@gmail.com. I have a job but I want to get out. Thanks

    Like

  2. This is a nice article, Matthew. Some good background and then a distillation of what you actually need. Thanks for putting it together.

    Like

  3. It’s important to remember that in the key pair scenario the public or private key can encrypt, also the certificate is still retrievable if the original source server is still in any way accessible. You just take a new backup of the cert and restore that to the new server

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