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Encryption Books Media Security Book Reviews

Translucent Databases 70

Posted by timothy
from the when-muddle-is-useful dept.
Hettinga writes: "Through many popular books and articles in the New York Times, Peter Wayner has done more to promote the field of applied financial cryptography, and in particular open source financial cryptography, than any other author writing today. His new book, Translucent Databases, from Flyzone Press, is no exception." Read on for the rest of the review.
Translucent Databases
author Peter Wayner
pages 185
publisher Flyzone Press
rating Outstanding. 5 Stars. Buy this Book.
reviewer Robert Hettinga
ISBN 0-9675844-1-8
summary Translucent Databases cure "Database Nation" and the "Transparent Society"?

Translucent Databases has all the hallmarks of Wayner's books: clear, easy to read exposition of the main issues, why they're important, and, in his technical books, excellently documented code written for the most popular platforms for the technology in question.

This book in particular should be an instant classic because like all great books, it takes what should be a very simple idea, encrypted databases, and expands it to some amazing conclusions.

For a long time now, I've been interested in what I call the geodesic economy, where all information, including information controlling financial assets, is fractally "surfacted", like so much grease in soapy dishwater, as far out into the edges of a ubiquitous internetwork as Moore's Law will allow, using financial cryptography protocols to secure transactions and markets on a nominally insecure, but ubiquitous, public internetwork.

People who are familiar with my thinking about such things over the past 8 years will see quite quickly why I think Peter's new book is so important. Transparent databases represent a way not only to link the batch-settled, book-entry debit-for-credit world of modern financial operations with a more simply founded, but much more sophisticated world which uses cryptographic tokens representing control of various financial and real assets. They also show us how to actually account for those tokens in such a fashion that every financial actor in that market, man or machine, can trust that their bearer certificates are authentic ones, and done in such a fashion that a given token retains its cryptographic integrity, including the functionally anonymous characteristics that made it so cheap to use in the first place.

The singular feature of Wayner's translucent databases is that, like internet bearer transactions themselves, the cryptography securing data in them can happen in the client, and not a centrally vulnerable server. More to the point, by using data stored in this fashion, the data can be dispersed as far out in the network as... well, Moore's Law allows, in extremely fast and lightweight files, and, instead of creating summaries of data for reports, the data can be polled for as close to its source as possible, instantaneously, in realtime, instead of being rolled up into increasingly larger batch-processed summaries taking weeks, sometimes months, to produce and audit.

There are obvious implications for my own particular hobby-horses, like anonymous but accurate double spend databases for bearer transactions, where only a simple blinded m-of-n cryptographic hash of a given promise to pay is necessary to prevent the duplication of that promise to more than one person at a time. However, for the rest of us :-), Wayner also points to a whole host of much less esoteric applications in the lots of the usual places where absolute privacy and extremely authentic information, is at a premium. Examples for military, medical, and anti-rape databases, for accounting systems and securities transactions, and even for internet poker -- the paradigm of completely untrusted parties cooperating for what each player hopes will be his own, preferrably cash, benefit -- are all presented in clear writing and running code.

There has been a lot of lip-service in the privacy community about "owning" your own data. Unfortunately, by involving the state at all, these "advocates" almost always favor inadvertantly draconian political solutions to the problem presented by the ubiquity of database technology and its otherwise beneficial presense in our lives. They ususally present this nonsense as a "sacrifice" for the "greater good" that would make Hayek's Road to Serfdom look like Lilac Sunday at the local arboretum.

In Translucent Databases, Wayner shows, in precise detail, with code, how to solve that problem, without trusting lawyers, much less guys with guns.

Though quite a short read, the scope of the book itself is quite considerable. Wayner starts from simple hashes of data to merely obscure it, through various kinds of encryption, quantization of data, and even accounting with encrypted data using what amounts to virtual cumulative crossfoots like the kind you would see on all good accounting reports. In so doing, Wayner explains, quite simply, something that people like Eric Hughes made great, complicated hay out of years ago with gangling theories of encrypted "open" books.

Ultimately, Wayner really does end up where a lot of us think databases will be someday, particularly in finance: repositories of data accessible only by digital bearer tokens using various blind signature protocols, neatly, and quite literally, "dis-integrating" the ability of databases to be used against us as a tool of totalitarianism, exemplified most recently by Simpson Garfinkel in his book Database Nation , and, oddly enough, not because someone or other wants to strike a blow against the empire, but simply because it's safer -- and cheaper -- to do that way.

Every database programmer should have a copy of this simple and elegant book on his reference bookshelf. Particularly if he cares about the integrity of his data, the liability to the database's owner should information be misappropriated, and, not least, about freedom itself in a world of ubiquitous, and, frankly, necessary, stored detail: details about practically every person on earth, their property and finances, and, ultimately, everything they do.

Translucent Databases presents a simple, frankly beautiful, solution to David Brin's world of ubiquitous surveillance, one not requiring, as Brin seems to want, "trust" of state force-monopolists, much less their lawyers and apparatchiks.

In fact, it's such an elegant solution that, as Schopenhauer liked to say about the public acceptance of important new ideas, soon enough, people will say it was obvious all along.


Robert Hettinga is founder of IBUC, the Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation, which will, hopefully, someday, :-), use translucent databases full of internet bearer certificates to reduce transaction costs by three orders of magnitude. You can purchase Translucent Databases through the publisher. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to submit yours, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.

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Translucent Databases

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  • they seem to be calling it both.
  • ooooohh... (Score:1, Funny)

    by paradesign (561561)
    is it made of transparent aluminum? [slashdot.org] or transparent concrete? [slashdot.org]
  • by Anonymous Coward
    I'm not a believer in them either - but the techniques described in this book are covered by existing patents - buyer/implementor beware.
    • Which ones? Can you point to ones in particular?
    • Some of the more important patents are expired. RSA and Diffie-Hellman are long gone. Many of the other techniques are protected by prior art. The UNIX password database, for instance, is a great example of a basic translucent database. That's 20 to 30 years old.

      I wouldn't be surprised if there are patents out there, but I hope people will point to the ones they're talking about.
  • Oracle's take would be:
    'Unseeable'
    .

    hmph.
  • A Better way to encrypt data would be to translate it into the Indian Navahoe language, send it, and then re-translate at the other end. Plus it will provide many jobs for the Indians.
  • Is it "Transparent Databases" or "Translucent Databases"??
  • My $0.02 (Score:2, Interesting)

    by dknj (441802)
    This book contains an innovative and viable approach to securing databases, and one that I've not encountered anywhere else. In a nutshell the author provides techniques, based on standard SQL and Java, for securing sensitive data without restricting general access of less sensitive data to authorized users. The core of this approach is based on encryption and one-way functions, including PKI and secure hashing, and accepted authentication techniques such as digital signatures.

    What makes this book unique is that while it's based on solid theoretical ground, the material is practical. As the techniques are discussed they are illustrated by 15 different scenarios, all of which contain problems faced by e-commerce and other high security environments, and code examples that show how to solve the problems. I like the way the author shows how to implement his solutions in common database environments (PostgreSQL, MySQL and Oracle - the approach should also work in the MS SQL Server environment). As I read this book I saw interesting possibilities for implementing role-based access controls and securing against SQL-based statistical attacks using the author's approach.

    This book is essential reading for DBAs and system architects and IT security professionals. This book shows the DBA how to secure his or her database, and the system architects and security professionals what is possible using SQL and Java. The book also has an associated web site which is supposed to have soft copies of all of the source code contained in the book. As of 6/25/02 the link to the source code is on the site, but the code itself is not yet available. When it is the value of this book will increase even more because of the time it will save by not having to manually create the code from scratch.

    If you are new to the cryptographic techniques introduced in this book I recommend "Cryptography Decrypted" by H. X. Mel and Doris M. Baker, which is one of the best introductions to this complex subject. I also recommend reading "Secrets and Lies: Digital Security in a Networked World" by Bruce Schneier, which covers the technical, organizational and social aspects of security and gives a clear description of the technical underpinnings discussed in this book.

    -dk
  • "as far out into the edges of a ubiquitous internetwork as Moore's Law will allow"

    After all, we can't have all of us NOT buying new, more powerful boxes.

    At least my spell check can run 2000 times faster than I need it to.

    Yes, I know the reviewer is speaking of servers pushing the limits, but we all get screwed, i mean the benefit of buying new boxes at new speeds.

    I equate it to buying a Porche to be used as a taxi.

    To me, a real technological inovation would be to create new software (and DBs) that run better and faster on existing equiptment and not force everyone to buy the latest and greatest.

    I guess I'm not the biggest fan of planned obsolecense (like my 8-bit Nintendo).

    Just my 1 cent.

    • by peterwayner (266189) <p3&wayner,org> on Thursday June 27, 2002 @12:36PM (#3780335) Homepage
      You make great points. There's no reason for innovation to keep sucking money out of your wallet. I think some of the techniques in the books will definitely take more cycles, but many of them won't.

      The first, and most important point to remember, is that many of the cycles on your machine are going to waste. While you're reading Slashdot, the CPU is doing basic maintenance. Even the basic Pentium does little after the page is rendered. All of these cycles can be put to use.

      Java applets are great (okay pretty good) technology that can put those cycles to work. The book uses Java so any developer can easily take their code and push it out to the user's machine. The same code runs on either the server or the client.

      The code on the client is even more secure. It can do all of the encryption at the local machine and scramble the data before it hits the web. Voila. The server has less work and the client's wasted cycles are put to work.

      Many of the other techniques in the book can make databases more efficient. It's hard to say how much, but it's important to remember that cryptographically secure hash functions like MD5 or SHA are also plain old hash functions. They do a good job of distributing the values. If you're using a hash function, the values in the column are very evenly distributed making binary search faster and more efficient. This might not be a big deal, but it's a step in the right direction.

      Of course, some of the techniques just suck computations. Sorry. But if you need the security, they're there for you.

  • some sort funky case mod?
  • Nice License :-) (Score:4, Interesting)

    by ackthpt (218170) on Thursday June 27, 2002 @09:52AM (#3779094) Homepage Journal
    Anyone who purchases the book receives an unlimited license to use the source code from the examples on up to ten CPUs. If you have greater needs, other licenses are available. Or just buy another copy of the book.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Is someone at Slashdot really trying to flog this guy's book? It was mentioned at the bottom of his Minority Report review yesterday...
  • ... I've been interested
    ... my thinking
    ... why I think
    ... my own particular hobby-horses

    How about getting off that hobby-horse for a minute and simply describing EXACTLY what is in the book, what is not, and who (besides you) might be interested. I feel like I read a sermon, not a book review.

  • Opaque Databases (Score:3, Insightful)

    by schmaltz (70977) on Thursday June 27, 2002 @12:07PM (#3780117)
    Wayner really does end up where a lot of us think databases will be someday, particularly in finance: repositories of data accessible only by digital bearer tokens using various blind signature protocols, neatly, and quite literally, "dis-integrating" the ability of databases to be used against us as a tool of totalitarianism
    Yes, but this is Idealism 101. Is it really possible that today's monolithic financial institutions are going to allow their data to become decentralized in such a fashion? Don't count on it! In fact, the bones of this thoughtful and idealistic technology will be picked apart, and bastardized to do what they [enron.com] have always done, namely to make themselves more opaque. You need look no further than efforts like TCPA (Palladium, CBDTPA, et al) to know that totalitarianism is here, and will always survive in some form.

    For the rest of us, yes, decentralized [yahoo.com] databases and open source financials, both for governments and public corporations, will hopefully rule the day.
  • Will we get a review of IBUC by Stephen Spielberg tomorrow?
    • Hey, you've got a point. What can I say? I sent the review of Minority Report in last Friday night. This is just how the queue dumped it out.

      Unfortunately, the directions are pointed in the wrong way. I would be glad to give a great review to IBUC if it meant that Speilberg would buy the movie rights to Translucent Databases . :-) Boy that would be a snoozer.
  • Translucent Databases [amazon.com].

    Its cheaper and more easily available at the publishers web site at $26.95 + $3.80 (S&H), rather than the amazon stock price of $29.95, but if you are buying more than $50 worth of stuff, Amazon is offering free shipping. I guess thisl ink is also useful if you want to limit your paypal usage. Amazon's availability is 10-12 days.

    Winton
  • Brin went ballistic! (Score:5, Informative)

    by SiliconEntity (448450) on Thursday June 27, 2002 @01:14PM (#3780640)
    Robert Hettinga's review described the new techniques as a solution to "David Brin's world of ubiquitous surveillance". Someone forwarded the review to Brin and he went ballistic!

    Read his response here. [inet-one.com] The last thing David Brin wants to see is "translucent databases". He wants more openness and transparency, not less.

    • I can see why Hettinga wants to tweak Brin, but that wasn't the point of the book. The solutions are, according to the metaphor, translucent , so that makes them half-transparent. I think these are pretty good compromises that, in the right circumstances, let DBAs have their cake and eat it too. The personal information is scrambled, but the rest is left in the clear. Some forms of scrutiny are possible even if the personal information is cloaked. There are, for instance, some interesting algorithms for electronic voting that preserve secrecy while avoiding all of the problems we recently encountered in FLA.

      It's a deep field and there's plenty of room for interpreting and reinterpreting the right amount of light to let through the window.
  • by mir@ge (25727)
    I haven't read the book. But, I have worked a little on the problem of "encrypted databases". The issue I could never get my head around is indexing encrypted data in a meaningfull way. Large databases are practicle for retreiving data because we key off certain fields. In order for one to index those keys they must be readable by the database. If that data is encrypted it is not readable by the database and pretty much defeats the purpose of keeping it there. Does the author address this fundamental problem? I'd love to know how. After that everything is just gravy.
    • One of the main ideas of the book is to just scramble the personal information but leave the impersonal information in the clear. So a store database might scramble the name and credit card number but leave the purchase information in the clear. The regular database operations work quickly on the items. The marketing department can figure out who bought how much of what. They can compute great stats. But they can't tell how much Bob Smith spent last month. So we get privacy and some efficiency. This is why it's translucent not opaque or transparent.

      One of the other ideas explored in the book is blurring the data just the right amount. When this works, the sensitive data disappears but there's still enough information left around to do useful work. You can think of rounding off a person's age to be 30's, 40's or 50's instead of spelling it out. There are some better examples in the book about naval ships.

      The techniques are far from perfect. Many of them aren't very new. They don't work for all situations. But I think they represent a different way of looking at the problem. The viewpoint may be the most novel part of the book.

      -Peter
  • Is that a database dressed in Apple's Aqua? Like FileMaker Pro or OpenBase both of which have a lickable Aqua interface with translucent menus and stuff... ;)

  • Didn't scotty provide the plans for that in Star Trek IV?

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