Dynamic Data Masking in SQL Server for beginners

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The article introduces the basics of dynamic data masking (DDM)  in SQL Server along with its overview supported by a simple example of data masking implementation. Additionally, the readers are going to get familiar with the benefits of dynamic data masking. This paper also highlights the importance of data masking in day to day database development tasks when some fields must be masked due to their sensitive nature in order to comply with standard practices.

About Data Masking

Let us go through the basic concepts of data masking and the availability of this feature in SQL Server.

Simple Definition

Data masking is a method of hiding data completely or partially thereby making it hard to recognize or understand the data after the masking has been applied.

Microsoft Definition

According to Microsoft documentation, Dynamic data masking (DDM) limits sensitive data exposure by masking it to non-privileged users.

What is Sensitive data

By sensitive data, we mean any data which contains private, personally identifiable, financial or security information which if revealed can be misused or damage the reputation of an organization.

Sensitive Data Example

A good example of sensitive data is a debit card number stored in a database that must be protected from any unauthorized use. Another good example of sensitive data is the personal email address which can easily identify a person.

Non-privileged users

Any database user who is not allowed to see the sensitive data is considered to be a non-privileged user.

Dynamic Data Masking (DDM)

The data masking feature supported by SQL Server is known as dynamic data masking also referenced as DDM in Microsoft documentation. In other words, Microsoft refers to data masking as dynamic data masking in SQL Server.

Compatibility

According to Microsoft documentation, the dynamic data masking feature is supported by the following versions of SQL Server:
1. SQL Server 2016 and later versions
2. Azure SQL Database
3. Azure SQL Data Warehouse
So if you have not started using Azure SQL database(s) yet, then you need minimum SQL Server 2016 to use dynamic data masking feature.

Configuring Dynamic Data Masking

Dynamic data masking can be configured by simply using T-SQL commands.
The dynamic data masking implementation is done through T-SQL scripting to prevent unauthorized users from viewing sensitive data.

Benefits of Dynamic Data Masking

Finally, let us go through some key benefits of dynamic data masking but before that, I would like to ask the SQL beginners not the SQL professionals, what are the benefits of integrity constraints?
Let us consider an example of a unique key constraint that ensures that the column on which it is applied has distinct (no duplicate) values. If I can enforce distinct column values at the moment of data entry in my front-end application why should I bother to enforce it through a database by applying a unique key constraint?
The answer is to ensure the rules (integrity constraints) remain consistent and are controlled centrally. I have to do that at a database level otherwise I may have to write the code to enforce unique values in all the present and any upcoming applications that access the database.
The same is true for dynamic data masking since it defines the mask on a column at a database level so there is no need to perform any additional masking (code) by the applications accessing the database.

Dynamic data masking has the following benefits over traditional approaches:
1. Dynamic data masking implements the centralised policy of hiding or changing the sensitive data in a database that is inherited by any application wishes to access the data.
2. Dynamic data masking in SQL Server can help manage users with privileges to see the sensitive data and those users who are not authorized to see it.
3. It has a simple implementation in the form of T-SQL script.

Implementing Dynamic Data Masking

Before we implement dynamic data masking we need to understand the types of dynamic data masking that can be applied to a column in a table of a SQL or Azure SQL Database.

Types of Data Masks

There are four types of data masks that we can apply to a column:
1. Default Data Mask(s)
2. Partial Data Mask(s)
3. Random Data Mask(s)
4. Custom Data Mask(s)
In this article, we are going to focus on the default data masking type.

Applying Dynamic Data Masks

Dynamic data masks can be applied to a column of a table in the following ways:
1. When creating a new table
2. Altering an already created table to apply data masking to its column(s)

Setup Sample Database

Let us create a sample database named SQLDevBlogV5 by running the following T-SQL script:

Use the following query to view the articles:

Business Requirement to Mask Authors Names

Now suppose you receive a business requirement which states that author names should be masked due to the sensitivity of this information. The best way to meet this business requirement is to mask the Name column using DDM.

Masking Authors Names

We are going to alter the table in order to add data masking function as follows:

Checking Masking Status

You can check dynamic data masking status anytime by using the following T-SQL script given in Microsoft documentation:

The output shows us which columns have been masked successfully:

Data Check

Now check the data by querying the top 5 records of the table where we have applied the masking:

The output does not seem to be showing us the expected result:

As you can see despite the fact that we have masked the Author column it is still showing up its actual values. The reason behind this behavior is that the account we have used to apply dynamic data masking has got elevated privileges and that’s why the masked data is visible in its original form when we query the table using the current account.
The solution is to create a new user with Select permission.

Creating a user with Select permission on the table

Let us now create a new database user without a login having only Select permission on the Article table as follows:

Viewing Top 5 Articles as ArticleUser

Next, execute Select statement to get top 5 articles using the newly created user ArticleUser with select permission only:

Congratulations! You have successfully masked the Author column as per requirement.

Dropping Masked Column

You can drop the dynamic data masking on the column you’ve applied it before by simply issuing the following T-SQL command:

Please stay in touch since a more advanced use of dynamic data masking is on its way in the next article.

Things to do

Now that you can mask columns of a table in a database please try the following things to improve your skills further:
1. Please try to mask the Category column in the sample database.
2. Please try to create Author table with AuthorId, Name and Email columns and then pass AuthorId as a foreign key in the Article table and then apply dynamic data masking on the Name and Email columns of the Author table by creating a test user
3. Please try to create and drop dynamic data masking to ensure that you can successfully add and remove dynamic data masking on a SQL table

Haroon Ashraf

Haroon's deep interest in logic and reasoning at an early age of his academic career paved his path to become a data professional.

He began his professional life as a computer programmer more than 10 years ago working on his first data venture to migrate and rewrite a public sector database driven examination system from IBM AS400 (DB2) to SQL Server 2000 using VB 6.0 and Classic ASP along with developing reports and archiving many years of data.

His work and interest revolves around Database-Centric Architectures and his expertise include database and reports design, development, testing, implementation and migration along with Database Life Cycle Management (DLM).
Haroon Ashraf