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Masking vs. Encryption: What’s the Best Way To Protect My Data?

Author
Abigail Sims
October 24, 2022
Masking vs. Encryption: What’s the Best Way To Protect My Data?
In this article

    If you’re reading this, you already understand why security and data privacy matter for businesses, consumers—and the developers who work with those businesses to serve those consumers. While a range of security techniques have emerged to meet regulatory and ethical challenges and needs, today we will discuss two of the most common approaches—masking and encryption—and compare them against one another.

    That’s right - it’s time for a showdown between two of the biggest baddies on the block: Data masking vs Data Encryption. 

    Which one is better? The short version is that it depends. Data masking can be used to provide faster and more efficient protection for data. On the other hand, encryption can be used to offer a higher level of security for data. The true answer to this question depends on the specific needs of the developer. If speed and efficiency are the primary concerns, then data masking may be the better option. However, if security is the key concern, then encryption may be the better choice.

    Ultimately, the decision of which technique to use should be based on the specific needs of the developer and the type of data that is being protected.

    So… Which one should developers use?

    To determine which option is best, let’s take a look at the key differences of data masking vs. encryption.

    What Is Data Masking?

    Data masking is a technique that is used to obfuscate sensitive data. This is done by replacing original values with modified values that appear to be realistic but are actually fake. The goal of data masking is to protect the information from being compromised while still allowing it to be used for testing and development purposes.

    There are several different types of data masking techniques that can be used, depending on the type of data that is being protected. We cover all these in more detail here, but we’ll list them quickly below. 

    1. Static data masking: Replaces the original data with artificial data that looks real but has no actual meaning. (This is the type of masking we’ll focus on for the rest of this article!)
    2. Dynamic data masking: Hide sensitive information from unauthorized users by replacing the sensitive data with a generic value, such as ***** or null.
    3. On-the-fly data masking: Instead of storing sensitive data in its original form, on-the-fly data masking transforms it into a new form that is unintelligible to anyone who doesn’t have the key to decode it.
    4. Synthetic data generation: While technically not a data masking technique, synthetic data has been gaining popularity as a way to protect real data while still providing access for development and testing purposes. Synthetic data is simply fake data that looks realistic enough to be useful for various purposes.

    These are all ways to mask your data and keep it safe from prying eyes—with, of course, varying levels of utility for the developer. At its core, data masking is simple enough in concept. It’s the method by which one anonymizes data by replacing or “mask” original data with fake data.

    Simple, right? Now that we’ve defined data masking, let’s take a look at encryption. 

    What Is Encryption?

    Data encryption involves converting readable data to an unreadable data format. This can be done using a secret code or key. Once the data has been transformed, it can only be decrypted and read by someone who has the appropriate decryption key. There are a couple of types of encryption: asymmetric and symmetric.

    1. Asymmetric encryption is the process of utilizing different keys for each encryption.
    2. Symmetric encryption uses only one key throughout the process of encrypting and decrypting data.

    An organization might use encryption for a variety of reasons, including to protect data from being accessed by unauthorized individuals, to ensure the privacy of communications, or to comply with industry regulations.

    So how should a savvy developer choose between masking and data encryption? Or… do you have to choose? 

    Let’s look at some uses of each, and how these two approaches to data protection can be used separately and together. 

    Benefits of Static Data Masking

    Static masking has a wealth of benefits when implemented, each of which can be highly effective in specific situations.

    Here are a few examples:

    Preventing Unauthorized Access to Data

    Static masking can make it impossible for unauthorized individuals to view sensitive information. By obscuring the original data, you can be sure that only authorized personnel will be able to see it.

    Protecting Data during Development and Testing

    When developing and testing new applications, it’s often necessary to use real data. However, this can pose a security risk if that data is not properly protected. Static masking can ensure that your data is safe even during the development process.

    Complying with Data Privacy Regulations

    In many jurisdictions, there are strict regulations governing the way data must be handled. Static masking can help you to comply with these regulations by ensuring that sensitive data, such as personally identifiable information, is properly obscured.

    Benefits of Encryption

    Data protection using encryption also has a wide range of potential uses across multiple industries. While this isn’t a comprehensive list by any means, here are some examples:

    Protecting Communications between Parties

    Encryption is a good fit for protecting communications between parties, such as business partners, or between an organization and its customers. That’s because it can ensure that only authorized individuals read communications.

    For instance, a company might use encryption to protect customer data and information sent between its headquarters and remote locations.

    Ensuring the Privacy of Personal Information

    Few could argue that encrypting personal information isn’t a good idea. (After all, this is the type of data that’s most often targeted by hackers.) Data encryption makes it much more difficult for hackers to access this information.

    Safeguarding Stored Data from Unauthorized Access

    Data encryption can also be useful in preventing access to stored data by unauthorized individuals. Encrypted data makes it unreadable and unusable without the encryption key. And only authorized individuals should have this key.

    When to Use Static Data Masking

    Static masked data can be used in a number of scenarios, including:

    • Testing applications with real(ish) data
    • Sharing non-production data with partners or vendors
    • Ensuring compliance with privacy regulations
    • Protecting sensitive data 
    • Generating synthetic data for training and development purposes
    • When encrypting the entire database would be too costly or time-consuming

    When to Use Data Encryption

    Encryption, on the other hand, is typically used to protect data in transit. This means that data is encrypted while it’s moving from one location to another, such as from a company’s servers to its employees’ computers.

    Here are some examples:

    • When you need to protect data stored in a database
    • When you need to protect data in backup files
    • When you need to transmit data over an unsecured network connection
    • When you need to comply with industry or government regulations
    • When you need to deter cybercriminals from accessing sensitive data

    Why Data Masking Offers Better Security than Data Encryption

    Still on the fence about masking and data encryption? Consider this: While encryption is a common and effective data security measure, static data masking offers superior data protection for sensitive information, whether in data discovery or any other phase.

    That’s because data masking replaces sensitive data with realistic but fake data, using sophisticated algorithms that make it unreadable for everyone. This is in contrast to encryption, which encodes data so that it can only be decoded by authorized individuals.

    There are several reasons why you gain more security from static data masking vs. data encryption:

    So when it comes to static data masking vs. encryption (or even dynamic data masking), static data masking is the more secure and better choice.

    Sounds like a cut-and-dry deal, right? Case closed, right? 

    Not so fast. 

    What if we told you… You don’t have to choose. 

    Data Masking vs. Encryption: And the Winner is… Both!

    Ultimately, data masking and encryption are both means to the same end: Protecting sensitive data no matter where it is in databases, transit, production, or anywhere else. The two solutions aren’t mutually exclusive—you can mask and encrypt your data at the same time, or at different stages in the development process. 

    At Tonic.ai, we work with many customers who require both masking and encryption solutions, often for the same datasets. Our focus on efficiency ensures the best of both worlds, so that developers can work quickly and confidently without compromising security.

    Want to learn more about how we’re enabling teams like yours with efficient, secure data for testing, and beyond? Check out our ebook Fake Data Anti-Patterns to learn how to create realistic, useful test data that looks, acts, and feels just like production. Just wanna talk to a human about it? Book a demo today to go straight to the source. 

    Abigail Sims
    Marketing
    As a reformed writer now deep in the marketing machine, Abigail can (and will) create narrative-driven content for any technical vertical. With five years of experience telling brand stories for tech startups and small businesses, she thrives at the intersection of complex data and creative communication.
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