What is Searchable Symmetric Encryption (SSE) and what are its advantages?

SSE is a fundamental step towards security in cloud systems and should become the norm in the sector

Jan 31, 2022

As security concerns rise worldwide, so does investment in new technologies and services to protect data from falling into the wrong hands. And if we can't entirely stop hackers from accessing information or even internal leaks, then preventing the ability to read the data is an essential part of protecting privacy. 

That brings us to the all-too-familiar need for encryption and cryptographic storage. If data is stored, it must be done securely, encrypting information so that only a specific key can "unlock" it and make it readable. Moreover, as data is stored in the cloud and becomes more vulnerable to online attacks, encryption is mandatory for businesses and end-users. 

Symmetric encryption is then used to help secure information. It works with a single secret key that can encrypt and decrypt electronic data. Hence, the "symmetric" in the name: the two sides of the process, the entities communicating, need to share that same key. It differs from an asymmetric encryption method, where a pair of keys, a public and a private one, is used to encrypt and decrypt messages.


The symmetric method

The main advantage of using the symmetric method is that it is still faster and more efficient than asymmetric encryption despite being an older technology. It demands much less of networks and CPU, especially when dealing with large amounts of data, such as databases. 

The technology is not without its challenges, though. For example, key management demands security leaders to rotate keys to avoid leaks - which can become impractical in certain situations. At the same time, there are already tools to assist with the difficulties that can arise from using this method, including specific software for management. 

Another issue with dealing with encrypted data - whether symmetric or asymmetric - is that accessing data regularly might become impractical. For example, when you need a piece of information in an extensive database, it becomes impractical to decrypt - search - encrypt. This is when Searchable Symmetric Encryption (SSE) comes in handy.

 

The advantages of SSE

Searchable symmetric encryption comes to keep the benefits of the encryption, effectively protecting third parties from reading the information, but incorporates the ability to search through the encrypted data selectively. In that way, even in the cloud, SSE allows users to reach specific info without hackers or non-authorized users being able to access a readable file. 

The technology allows managers to store documents and information securely but still keep some functionality to search for keywords and retrieve (and decrypt) specific information. The advantage is enormous: faster, more secure processes. There are still, however, many steps to be taken. Especially with technology that should arrive with quantum computing, for example, and other uses with homomorphic encryption. 

The tools we have now are necessary, but they are just the first steps. The future of encryption and data security is promising, but security managers need to go in the right direction and follow the latest technologies.