Securing User Emails in Rails

3 minute read

The GDPR goes into effect next Friday. Whether or not you serve European residents, it’s a great reminder that we have the responsibility to protect user privacy in the systems we build.

Email addresses are a common form of personal data, and they’re often stored unencrypted. If an attacker gains access to the database or backups, emails will be compromised.

This post will walk you through a practical approach to protecting emails. It works with Devise, the most popular authentication framework for Rails, and is general enough to work with others.

Strategy

We’ll use two concepts to make this happen: encryption and blind indexing. Encryption gives us a way to securely store the data, and blind indexing provides a way to look it up.

Blind indexing works by computing a hash of the data. You’re probably familiar with hash functions like MD5 and SHA1. Rather than one of these, we use a hash function that takes a secret key and uses key stretching to slow down brute force attempts. You can read more about blind indexing here.

We’ll use the attr_encrypted gem for encryption and the blind_index gem for blind indexing.

Instructions

Let’s assume you have a User model with an email field.

Add to your Gemfile:

gem 'attr_encrypted'
gem 'blind_index'

And run:

bundle install

Next, let’s replace the email field with an encrypted version. Create a migration:

rails g migration add_encrypted_email_to_users

And add:

class AddEncryptedEmailToUsers < ActiveRecord::Migration[5.2]
  def change
    # encrypted data
    add_column :users, :encrypted_email, :string
    add_column :users, :encrypted_email_iv, :string

    # blind index
    add_column :users, :encrypted_email_bidx, :string
    add_index :users, :encrypted_email_bidx, unique: true

    # drop original here unless we have existing users
    remove_column :users, :email
  end
end

We use one column to store the encrypted data, one to store the IV, and another to store the blind index.

Then migrate:

rails db:migrate

Next, generate keys. Do not commit them to source control. We like to use environment variables to store them as hex-encoded strings (dotenv is great for this). Generate one key for encryption and one key for hashing. For development, you can use these:

EMAIL_ENCRYPTION_KEY=0000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000
EMAIL_BLIND_INDEX_KEY=ffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffff

Add to your user model:

class User < ApplicationRecord
  attr_encrypted :email, key: [ENV["EMAIL_ENCRYPTION_KEY"]].pack("H*")
  blind_index :email, key: [ENV["EMAIL_BLIND_INDEX_KEY"]].pack("H*")
end

Create a new user and confirm it works.

Existing Users

If you have existing users, we need to backfill the data before dropping the email column. We temporarily use a virtual attribute - protected_email - so we can backfill without downtime.

class User < ApplicationRecord
  attr_encrypted :protected_email, key: [ENV["EMAIL_ENCRYPTION_KEY"]].pack("H*"), attribute: "encrypted_email"
  blind_index :protected_email, key: [ENV["EMAIL_BLIND_INDEX_KEY"]].pack("H*"), attribute: "email", bidx_attribute: "encrypted_email_bidx"

  before_validation :protect_email, if: ->(r) { r.email_changed? }

  def protect_email
    self.protected_email = email
    compute_protected_email_bidx
  end
end

Backfill the data in the Rails console:

User.where(encrypted_email: nil).find_each do |user|
  user.protect_email
  user.save!
end

Then update the model to the desired state:

class User < ApplicationRecord
  attr_encrypted :email, key: [ENV["EMAIL_ENCRYPTION_KEY"]].pack("H*")
  blind_index :email, key: [ENV["EMAIL_BLIND_INDEX_KEY"]].pack("H*")

  # remove this line after dropping email column
  self.ignored_columns = ["email"]
end

Finally, drop the email column.

Logging

We also need to make sure email addresses aren’t logged. Add to config/initializers/filter_parameter_logging.rb:

Rails.application.config.filter_parameters += [:email]

Use Logstop to filter anything that looks like an email address as an extra line of defense. Add to your Gemfile:

gem 'logstop'

And create config/initializers/logstop.rb with:

Logstop.guard(Rails.logger)

Summary

We now have a way to encrypt data and query for exact matches. You can apply this same approach to other fields as well. For more security, consider a key management service to manage your keys.

Updated: