In this post, we’ll show you how to use the AWS Encryption SDK (“ESDK”) for JavaScript to handle an in-browser encryption workload for a hypothetical application. First, we’ll review some of the security and privacy properties of encryption, including the names AWS uses for the different components of a typical application. Then, we’ll discuss some of the reasons you might want to encrypt each of those components, with a focus on in-browser encryption, and we’ll describe how to perform that encryption using the ESDK. Lastly, we’ll talk about some of the security properties to be mindful of when designing an application, and where to find additional resources.

An overview of the security and privacy properties of encryption

Encryption is a technique that can restrict access to sensitive data by making it unreadable without a key. An encryption process takes data that is plainly readable or processable (“plaintext”) and uses principles of mathematics to obscure the contents so that it can’t be read without the use of a secret key. To preserve user privacy and prevent unauthorized disclosure of sensitive business data, developers need ways to protect sensitive data during the entire data lifecycle. Data needs to be protected from risks associated with unintentional disclosure as data flows between collection, storage, processing, and sharing components of an application. In this context, encryption is typically divided into two separate techniques: encryption at rest for storing data; and encryption in transit for moving data between entities or systems.

Many applications use encryption in transit to secure connections between their users and the services they provide, and then encrypt the data before it’s stored. However, as applications become more complex and data must be moved between more nodes and stored in more diverse places, there are more opportunities for data to be accidentally leaked or unintentionally disclosed. When a user enters their data in a browser, Transport Layer Security (TLS) can protect that data in transit between the user’s browser and a service endpoint. But in a distributed system, intermediary services between that endpoint and the service that processes that sensitive data might log or cache the data before transporting it. Encrypting sensitive data at the point of collection in the browser is a form of encryption at rest that minimizes the risk of unauthorized access and protects the data if it’s lost, stolen, or accidentally exposed. Encrypting data in the browser means that even if it’s completely exposed elsewhere, it’s unreadable and worthless to anyone without access to the key.

A typical web application

A typical web application will accept some data as input, process it, and then store it. When the user needs to access stored data, the data often follows the same path used when it was input. In our example there are three primary components to the path:

Figure 1: A hypothetical web application where the application is composed of an end-user interacting with a browser front-end, a third party which processes data received from the browser, processing is performed in Amazon EC2, and storage happens in Amazon S3

Figure 1: A hypothetical web application where the application is composed of an end-user interacting with a browser front-end, a third party which processes data received from the browser, processing is performed in Amazon EC2, and storage happens in Amazon S3

  1. An end-user interacts with the application using an interface in the browser.
  2. As data is sent to Amazon EC2, it passes through the infrastructure of a third party which could be an Internet Service Provider, an appliance in the user’s environment, or an application running in the cloud.
  3. The application on Amazon EC2 processes the data once it has been received.
  4. Once the application is done processing data, it is stored in Amazon S3 until it is needed again.

As data moves between components, TLS is used to prevent inadvertent disclosure. But what if one or more of these components is a third-party service that doesn’t need access to sensitive data? That’s where encryption at rest comes in.

Encryption at rest is available as a server-side, client-side, and client-side in-browser protection. Server-side encryption (SSE) is the most commonly used form of encryption with AWS customers, and for good reason: it’s easy to use because it’s natively supported by many services, such as Amazon S3. When SSE is used, the service that’s storing data will encrypt each piece of data with a key (a “data key”) when it’s received, and then decrypt it transparently when it’s requested by an authorized user. This has the benefit of being seamless for application developers because they only need to check a box in Amazon S3 to enable encryption, and it also adds an additional level of access control by having separate permissions to download an object and perform a decryption operation. However, there is a security/convenience tradeoff to consider, because the service will allow any role with the appropriate permissions to perform a decryption. For additional control, many AWS services—including S3—support the use of customer-managed AWS Key Management Service (AWS KMS) customer master keys (CMKs) that allow you to specify key policies or use grants or AWS Identity and Access Management (IAM) policies to control which roles or users have access to decryption, and when. Configuring permission to decrypt using customer-managed CMKs is often sufficient to satisfy compliance regimes that require “application-level encryption.”

Some threat models or compliance regimes may require client-side encryption (CSE), which can add a powerful additional level of access control at the expense of additional complexity. As noted above, services perform server-side encryption on data after it has left the boundary of your application. TLS is used to secure the data in transit to the service, but some customers might want to only manage encrypt/decrypt operations within their application on EC2 or in the browser. Applications can use the AWS Encryption SDK to encrypt data within the application trust boundary before it’s sent to a storage service.

But what about a use case where customers don’t even want plaintext data to leave the browser? Or what if end-users input data that is passed through or logged by intermediate systems that belong to a third-party? It’s possible to create a separate application that only manages encryption to ensure that your environment is segregated, but using the AWS Encryption SDK for JavaScript allows you to encrypt data in an end-user browser before it’s ever sent to your application, so only your end-user will be able to view their plaintext data. As you can see in Figure 2 below, in-browser encryption can allow data to be safely handled by untrusted intermediate systems while ensuring its confidentiality and integrity.

Figure 2: A hypothetical web application with encryption where the application is composed of an end-user interacting with a browser front-end, a third party which processes data received from the browser, processing is performed in Amazon EC2, and storage happens in Amazon S3

Figure 2: A hypothetical web application with encryption where the application is composed of an end-user interacting with a browser front-end, a third party which processes data received from the browser, processing is performed in Amazon EC2, and storage happens in Amazon S3

  1. The application in the browser requests a data key to encrypt sensitive data entered by the user before it is passed to a third party.
  2. Because the sensitive data has been encrypted, the third party cannot read it. The third party may be an Internet Service Provider, an appliance in the user’s environment, an application running in the cloud, or a variety of other actors.
  3. The application on Amazon EC2 can make a request to KMS to decrypt the data key so the data can be decrypted, processed, and re-encrypted.
  4. The encrypted object is stored in S3 where a second encryption request is made so the object can be encrypted when it is stored server side.

How to encrypt in the browser

The first step of in-browser encryption is including a copy of the AWS Encryption SDK for JavaScript with the scripts you’re already sending to the user when they access your application. Once it’s present in the end-user environment, it’s available for your application to make calls. To perform the encryption, the ESDK will request a data key from the cryptographic materials provider that is used to encrypt, and an encrypted copy of the data key that will be stored with the object being encrypted. After a piece of data is encrypted within the browser, the ciphertext can be uploaded to your application backend for processing or storage. When a user needs to retrieve the plaintext, the ESDK can read the metadata attached to the ciphertext to determine the appropriate method to decrypt the data key, and if they have access to the CMK decrypt the data key and then use it to decrypt the data.

Important considerations

One common issue with browser-based applications is inconsistent feature support across different browser vendors and versions. For example, how will the application respond to browsers that lack native support for the strongest recommended cryptographic algorithm suites? Or, will there be a message or alternative mode if a user accesses the application using a browser that has JavaScript disabled? The ESDK for JavaScript natively supports a fallback mode, but it may not be appropriate for all use cases. Be sure to understand what kind of browser environments you will need to support to determine whether in-browser encryption is appropriate, and include support for graceful degradation if you expect limited browser support. Developers should also consider the ways that unauthorized users might monitor user actions via a browser extension, make unauthorized browser requests without user knowledge, or request a “downgraded” (less mathematically intensive) cryptographic operation.

It’s always a good idea to have your application designs reviewed by security professionals. If you have an AWS Account Manager or Technical Account Manager, you can ask them to connect you with a Solutions Architect to review your design. If you’re an AWS customer but don’t have an account manager, consider visiting an AWS Loft to participate in our “Ask an Expert” plan.

Where to learn more

If you have questions about this post, let us know in the Comments section below, or consult the AWS Encryption SDK Developer Forum. Because the Encryption SDK is open-source, you can always contribute, open an issue, or ask questions in Github.

The AWS Encryption SDK for JavaScript is available at: https://github.com/awslabs/aws-encryption-sdk-javascript
Documentation is available at: https://docs.aws.amazon.com/encryption-sdk/latest/developer-guide/javascript.html

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Janyk author photo

Spencer Janyk

Spencer is a Senior Product Manager at Amazon Web Services working on data encryption and privacy. He has previously worked on vulnerability management and monitoring for enterprises and applying machine learning to challenges in ad tech, social media, diversity in recruiting, and talent management. Spencer holds a Master of Arts in Performance Studies from New York University and a Bachelor of Arts in Gender Studies from Whitman College.

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Amanda Gray

Amanda is a Senior Security Engineer at Amazon Web Services on the Crypto Tools team. Previously, Amanda worked on application security and privacy by design, and she continues to promote these goals every day. Amanda holds Bachelors’ degrees in Physics and Computer Science from the University of Washington and Smith College respectively, and a Master’s degree in Physical Oceanography from the University of Washington.

from AWS Security Blog