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Chapter: Security in Computing : Database and Data Mining Security

Sensitive Data

Some databases contain what is called sensitive data. As a working definition, let us say that sensitive data are data that should not be made public.

Sensitive Data


Some databases contain what is called sensitive data. As a working definition, let us say that sensitive data are data that should not be made public. Determining which data items and fields are sensitive depends both on the individual database and the underlying meaning of the data. Obviously, some databases, such as a public library catalog, contain no sensitive data; other databases, such as defense-related ones, are totally sensitive. These two casesnothing sensitive and everything sensitiveare the easiest to handle because they can be covered by access controls to the database as a whole. Someone either is or is not an authorized user. These controls are provided by the operating system.


The more difficult problem, which is also the more interesting one, is the case in which some but not all of the elements in the database are sensitive. There may be varying degrees of sensitivity. For example, a university database might contain student data consisting of name, financial aid, dorm, drug use, sex, parking fines, and race. An example of this database is shown in Table 6 -6. Name and dorm are probably the least sensitive; financial aid, parking fines, and drug use the most; sex and race somewhere in between. That is, many people may have legitimate access to name, some to sex and race, and relatively few to financial aid, parking fines, or drug use. Indeed, knowledge of the existence of some fields, such as drug use, may itself be sensitive. Thus, security concerns not only the data elements but also their context and meaning.

Furthermore, we must take into account different degrees of sensitivity. For instance, although they are all highly sensitive, the financial aid, parking fines, and drug-use fields may not have the same kinds of access restrictions. Our security requirements may demand that a few people be authorized to see each field, but no one be authorized to see all three. The challenge of the access control problem is to limit users' access so that they can obtain only the data to which they have legitimate access. Alternatively, the access control problem forces us to ensure that sensitive data are not to be released to unauthorized people.


Several factors can make data sensitive.


·    Inherently sensitive. The value itself may be so revealing that it is sensitive. Examples are the locations of defensive missiles or the median income of barbers in a town with only one barber.


·    From a sensitive source. The source of the data may indicate a need for confidentiality. An example is information from an informer whose identity would be compromised if the information were disclosed.


·    Declared sensitive. The database administrator or the owner of the data may have declared the data to be sensitive. Examples are classified military data or the name of the anonymous donor of a piece of art.


·    Part of a sensitive attribute or a sensitive record. In a database, an entire attribute or record may be classified as sensitive. Examples are the salary attribute of a personnel database or a record describing a secret space mission.


·    Sensitive in relation to previously disclosed information. Some data become sensitive in the presence of other data. For example, the longitude coordinate of a secret gold mine reveals little, but the longitude coordinate in conjunction with the latitude coordinate pinpoints the mine.


All of these factors must be considered to determine the sensitivity of the data.

Access Decisions


Remember that a database administrator is a person who decides what data should be in the database and who should have access to it. The database administrator considers the need for different users to know certain information and decides who should have what access. Decisions of the database administrator are based on an access policy.


The database manager or DBMS is a program that operates on the database and auxiliary control information to implement the decisions of the access policy. We say that the database manager decides to permit user x to access data y. Clearly, a program or machine cannot decide anything; it is more precise to say that the program performs the instructions by which x accesses y as a way of implementing the policy established by the database administrator. (Now you see why we use the simpler wording.) To keep explanations concise, we occasionally describe programs as if they can carry out human thought processes.


The DBMS may consider several factors when deciding whether to permit an access. These factors include availability of the data, acceptability of the access, and authenticity of the user. We expand on these three factors below.


Availability of Data


One or more required elements may be inaccessible. For example, if a user is updating several fields, other users' accesses to those fields must be blocked temporarily. This blocking ensures that users do not receive inaccurate information, such as a new street address with an old city and state, or a new code component with old documentation. Blocking is usually temporary. When performing an update, a user may have to block access to several fields or several records to ensure the consistency of data for others.


Notice, however, that if the updating user aborts the transaction while the update is in progress, the other users may be permanently blocked from accessing the record. This indefinite postponement is also a security problem, resulting in denial of service.


Acceptability of Access


One or more values of the record may be sensitive and not accessible by the general user. A DBMS should not release sensitive data to unauthorized individuals.


Deciding what is sensitive, however, is not as simple as it sounds, because the fields may not be directly requested. A user may have asked for certain records that contain sensitive data, but the user's purpose may have been only to project the values from particular fields that are not sensitive. For example, a user of the database shown in Table 6-6 may request the NAME and DORM of any student for whom FINES is not 0. The exact value of the sensitive field FINES is not disclosed, although "not 0" is a partial disclosure. Even when a sensitive value is not explicitly given, the database manager may deny access on the grounds that it reveals information the user is not authorized to have.


Alternatively, the user may want to derive a nonsensitive statistic from the sensitive data; for example, if the average financial aid value does not reveal any individual's financial aid value, the database management system can safely return the average. However, the average of one data value discloses that value.


Assurance of Authenticity


Certain characteristics of the user external to the database may also be considered when permitting access. For example, to enhance security, the database administrator may permit someone to access the database only at certain times, such as during working hours. Previous user requests may also be taken into account; repeated requests for the same data or requests that exhaust a certain category of information may be used to find out all elements in a set when a direct query is not allowed. As we shall see, sensitive data can sometimes be revealed by combined results from several less sensitive queries.


Types of Disclosures


Data can be sensitive, but so can their characteristics. In this section, we see that even descriptive information about data (such as their existence or whether they have an element that is zero) is a form of disclosure.


Exact Data


The most serious disclosure is the exact value of a sensitive data item itself. The user may know that sensitive data are being requested, or the user may request general data without knowing that some of it is sensitive. A faulty database manager may even deliver sensitive data by accident, without the user's having requested it. In all of these cases the result is the same: The security of the sensitive data has been breached.





Another exposure is disclosing bounds on a sensitive value; that is, indicating that a sensitive value, y, is between two values, L and H.  Sometimes, by using a narrowing technique not unlike the binary search, the user may first determine that L y H and then see whether L y H/2, and so forth, thereby permitting the user to determine y to any desired precision. In another case, merelyrevealing that a value such as the athletic scholarship budget or the number of CIA agents exceeds a certain amount may be a serious breach of security.

Sometimes, however, bounds are a useful way to present sensitive data. It is common to release upper and lower bounds for data without identifying the specific records. For example, a company may announce that its salaries for programmers range from $50,000 to $82,000. If you are a programmer earning $79,700, you can presume that you are fairly well off, so you have the information you want; however, the announcement does not disclose who are the highest- and lowest-paid programmers.


Negative Result


Sometimes we can word a query to determine a negative result. That is, we can learn that z is not the value of y. For example, knowing that 0 is not the total number of felony convictions for a person reveals that the person was convicted of a felony. The distinction between 1 and 2 or 46 and 47 felonies is not as sensitive as the distinction between 0 and 1. Therefore, disclosing that a value is not 0 can be a significant disclosure. Similarly, if a student does not appear on the honors list, you can infer that the person's grade point average is below 3.50. This information is not too revealing, however, because the range of grade point averages from 0.0 to 3.49 is rather wide.




In some cases, the existence of data is itself a sensitive piece of data, regardless of the actual value. For example, an employer may not want employees to know that their use of long distance telephone lines is being monitored. In this case, discovering a LONG DISTANCE field in a personnel file would reveal sensitive data.


Probable Value


Finally, it may be possible to determine the probability that a certain element has a certain value. To see how, suppose you want to find out whether the president of the United States is registered in the Tory party. Knowing that the president is in the database, you submit two queries to the database:


·        How many people have 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as their official residence? (Response: 4)


·        How many people have 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as their official residence and have YES as the value of TORY? (Response: 1)


From these queries you conclude there is a 25 percent likelihood that the president is a registered Tory.


Summary of Partial Disclosure


We have seen several examples of how a security problem can result if characteristics of sensitive data are revealed. Notice that some of the techniques we presented used information about the data, rather than direct access to the data, to infer sensitive results. A successful security strategy must protect from both direct and indirect disclosure.


Security versus Precision


Our examples have illustrated how difficult it is to determine which data are sensitive and how to protect them. The situation is complicated by a desire to share nonsensitive data. For reasons of confidentiality we want to disclose only those data that are not sensitive. Such an outlook encourages a conservative philosophy in determining what data to disclose: less is better than more.


On the other hand, consider the users of the data. The conservative philosophy suggests rejecting any query that mentions a sensitive field. We may thereby reject many reasonable and nondisclosing queries. For example, a researcher may want a list of grades for all students using drugs, or a statistician may request lists of salaries for all men and for all women. These queries probably do not compromise the identity of any individual. We want to disclose as much data as possible so that users of the database have access to the data they need. This goal, called precision, aims to protect all sensitive data while revealing as much nonsensitive data as possible.


We can depict the relationship between security and precision with concentric circles. As Figure 6-3 shows, the sensitive data in the central circle should be carefully concealed. The outside band represents data we willingly disclose in response to queries. But we know that the user may put together pieces of disclosed data and infer other, more deeply hidden, data. The figure shows us that beneath the outer layer may be yet more nonsensitive data that the user cannot infer.


The ideal combination of security and precision allows us to maintain perfect confidentiality with maximum precision; in other words, we disclose all and only the nonsensitive data. But achieving this goal is not as easy as it might seem, as we show in the next section. Sidebar 6-3 gives an example of using imprecise techniques to improve accuracy. In the next section, we consider ways in which sensitive data can be obtained from queries that appear harmless.


Sidebar 6-3: Accuracy and Imprecision


Article I of the U.S. Constitution charges Congress with determining the "respective numbers… of free…and all other persons…within every…term of ten years." This count is used for many things, including apportioning the number of representatives to Congress and distributing funds fairly to the states. Although difficult in 1787, this task has become increasingly challenging. The count cannot simply be based on residences, because some homeless people would be missed. A fair count cannot be obtained solely by sending a questionnaire for each person to complete and return, because some people cannot read and, more significantly, many people do not return such forms. And there is always the possibility that a form would be lost in the mail.


For the 2000 census the U.S. Census Bureau proposed using statistical sampling and estimating techniques to approximate the population. With these techniques they would select certain areas in which to take two counts: a regular count and a second, especially diligent search for every person residing in the area. In this way the bureau could determine the "undercount," the number of people missed in the regular count. They could then use this undercount factor to adjust the regular count in other similar areas and thus obtain a more accurate, although less precise, count.


The Supreme Court ruled that statistical sampling techniques were acceptable for determining revenue distribution to the states but not for allocating representatives in Congress. As a result, the census can never get an exact, accurate count of the number of people in the United States or even in a major U.S. city. At the same time, concerns about precision and privacy prevent the Census Bureau from releasing information about any particular individual living in the United States.


Does this lack of accuracy and exactness mean that the census is not useful? No. We may not know exactly how many people live in Washington, D.C., or the exact information about a particular resident of Washington, D.C., but we can use the census information to characterize the residents of Washington, D.C. For example, we can determine the maximum, minimum, mean, and median ages or incomes, and we can investigate the relationships among characteristics, such as between education level and income. So accuracy and precision help to reflect the balance between protection and need to know.

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