Masquerade Implementation

Chiara Colombi
April 24, 2019
Masquerade Implementation
In this article

    We introduced Masquerade as a way to redact data in real time. You can check out of the motivation here. Briefly, adding a proxy between your database and your application is a great way to preserve privacy in a very low friction way. What follows are some of the implementation details.

    Introduction to the Postgres Messaging Protocol

    Postgres clients communicate with Postgres via a messaging protocol over TCP. The best place to learn the details of the protocol is in Postgres’s own documentation. This post will go over the absolute minimum amount of information needed to understand how the proxy works.

    The messaging protocol supports two types of messages which are FrontEnd and BackEnd messages. As you may have guessed, FrontEnd (FE) messages originate from the client and BackEnd (BE) messages originate from the server.

    Masquerade does not alter FE messages. They are always sent to the server unaltered. Additionally, most BE messages are left unaltered as well, with the exception of:

    • NoticeResponse (‘N’)
    • DataRow (’D’)


    During initial startup for a connection, the client might issue an SSLRequest request to determine whether or not the server supports SSL. The server will return either a ParameterStatus (’S’) or a NoticeResponse (‘N’) to indicate that it does or does not support SSL, respectively. Because the proxy currently does not support SSL connections, when we see an SSLRequest come from the FE, we intercept the server response and return a NoticeResponse response regardless. This tells the client that SSL is not supported. If the client uses sslmode=require then the connection will not succeed.


    The remainder of this article (and a majority of work in the proxy) is related to how we handle modifying DataRow responses. DataRow messages include a single row from a SELECT query result-set. Their structure is simple and defined below:

    Byte - ’D’ to indicate what follows is a DataRow message

    Int32 - Length of message contents in bytes, including self

    Int16 - Number of column values that follow

    Next, the following pair of fields appear for each column:

    Int32 - Length of column value, not including self. -1 indicates NULL.

    Byte[] - Value of the column. Will be 0 bytes if NULL.

    Masquerade provides a hook when a DataRow message is received so that users can easily modify DataRows in place, on the wire, and hence modify what data the Postgres client actually sees.

    Modifying a DataRow message comes in several parts. First, the actual Byte[] value of a given column is modified according to some logic (we’ll discuss this more in the section on masking). Second, once the new value is computed we must re-calculate the Int32 that corresponds to the length of the column value. Finally, once all applicable columns in a DataRow message have been modified we must re-compute the Int32 of the message content length.

    If you would like to see how this is done in Masquerade, please examine the following function in PostgresDataMasker.cs.


    Notice how modifyDataRow also takes a RowDescription? RowDescription is another type of BE message which gives additional details on the DataRow messages sent afterwards. To view details on how modifyDataRow gets called, you can refer to PostgresBackendStateMachine.cs. The tl;dr is that we maintain a state machine that tracks exactly where we are in the TCP byte stream. The state machine tracks what type of BE message is currently being streamed, what the latest RowDescription message is, etc. and also ensures that modifyDataRow is called only at the appropriate time, i.e., once a complete DataRow message has been received.

    Masking Data

    This proxy can be useful without masking data for those interested in getting a better insight into how the Postgres Messaging Protocol works. Those willing to modify the code can use the proxy to register event listeners that fire when the FrontEnd or BackEnd send specific message types. Despite that potentially interesting use case, we expect most people to use Masquerade for actual data masking.

    Masking Use Cases

    • Protecting Dev/Test Data - The days of laissez-faire data handling are rapidly coming to a close. More and more companies are getting serious about keeping production data in secure, safe, actual production environments. As such, engineering teams are removing production data from dev/staging environments. Connecting this proxy to a production database (or a fast-follower) is a way to give developers access to data at production scale while also safely keeping it masked.
    • Sales Enablement - Similar to the above use case, sales teams are being restricted with regards to what data they can use in demos.
    • Data Analytics - Sometimes data analytics teams cannot view real data but must instead use masked data.
    • Other use cases?? - We always like to learn about how people are using our products. If you have another use case, please reach out to us at

    Masking Configuration

    Currently, there are 3 settings one can use to control the masking process.

    Masking configuration is determined via config.json, in the root of the repository. It looks something like this:


    Treatment of foreign and primary keys

    The preserve_keys value determines how we treat foreign and primary keys. If set to true, they are not masked; if set to false, they are masked like any other column.

    Masking based on data type and column name

    data_type_masks and column_masks allow you to assign masking rules based on either a data type (which would apply to all columns of that data type in the entire database) or based on a specific column. Specific columns are identified by their schema, table name, and column name. column_masks settings override data_type_masks settings.

    Masking Functions

    Each column and data type mask requires the user to specify a masking function. There are currently a variety of simple masking functions included in this first release and more will be added over time. A masking function takes a column value as a string and returns a new string with the corresponding masked value. There is no requirement that the returned string be the same length as the original string. Users can create their own masking functions by creating a function with the following signature:


    in the PgMaskingProxy.Maskers namespace. The masking_function name given in config.json should be all lower case and should match the name of the function.


    Typically the proxy is connected to a fast-follower database that might not support writes. We would not recommend connecting a web application directly to the proxy because, most likely, your application will need to run INSERTS, UPDATES, and DELETES. A workaround is to connect to the proxy via pgdump and dump a masked version of the database then run a restore via pg_restore to give yourself a new database on which you can run any operations.

    Chiara Colombi
    Director of Product Marketing
    A bilingual wordsmith dedicated to the art of engineering with words, Chiara has over a decade of experience supporting corporate communications at multi-national companies. She once translated for the Pope; it has more overlap with translating for developers than you might think.