Differences between data encryption, data masking and data encoding

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A very common mistake among many of the people who work with data is to confuse data protection techniques. Data encryption and data masking, for instance, they are two technically different processes that many times they are identified as if they were oneself.


Photo credits: LizardFilm

There's a lot similarities between data masking and data encryption, although the differences are substantial. Each of them is designed to ensure data protection and can substantially enhance each other when used synergistically..

Confusion increases when data encryption and data masking are coupled with other terms like data anonymization., desidentificación, data encoding or data obfuscation.. Do you want to understand once and for all what each one means?

The fundamental difference between data encryption and data masking

Reversibility is the main difference between masking and data encryption. For data masking, reversible information is weak as it contains original data that is vulnerable.

To prevent knowledge of a password from offering certain types of information to an unauthorized person, many companies opt for data masking. The main characteristics of this type of technique are:

  • Hides data items that users in certain roles shouldn't see and replaces them with similar-looking fake data.
  • Masked data is designed to meet the requirements of a system ready to continue working or testing without interruption.
  • This technique ensures that vital parts of personally identifiable information cannot be recognized..
  • One of the most used techniques is dynamic data masking, that manages to transform data on the fly based on user privileges, accelerating data privacy and invaluable in protecting transactional systems in real time.

Anyone who knows data masking knows that none of their techniques is based on data encryption. In fact, you don't even need to have a decryption key for the information, since you can see all data records, which the rules allow access, in its native form.

For many it is a form of protection to consider, since masked data cannot be unmasked: the resulting dataset does not contain any reference to the original information.

But nevertheless, for him data encryption (widely used to protect files on local disk drives, network or cloud, network communications and for the protection of web and email traffic), Yes, reversibility is required as it contains the original information, although in a different format. What's more, encryption implies:

  • Convert and transform data into scrambled ciphertext, often unreadable, using unreadable mathematical algorithms and calculations.
  • The need to have the original decryption key, together with the corresponding decryption algorithm, each time the information content is to be retrieved.

Are there alternatives to data encryption and data masking to protect information?

Some companies wonder what is data encoding. Data encryption is the process of obfuscating or deleting confidential data, a practice commonly performed by database administrators seeking to preserve the confidentiality of information when cloning. The main characteristics of this type of technique are:

  • It is an irreversible randomization process, that does not allow the separation of the original data from the encoded ones.
  • Normally, the same encoding parameters are used for multiple clone runs.

Besides encryption, masking or encoding data, companies protect their most valuable assets by anonymizing data, making it difficult to identify a particular individual from stored data related to him., something that is achieved based on techniques like hashing, jitter, data encryption, generalization or pseudonymization. Another alternative is de-identification, a process that prevents a person's identity from being linked to information about them. and that is achieved through the elimination or masking of personal identifiers and the suppression or generalization of quasi-identifiers. Finally, It is worth highlighting the data obfuscation, another form of data masking where data is deliberately encoded, forming confusing or unintelligible data sets, to prevent unauthorized access.

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