Lift Encrypted Fields

I recently took a course in cryptography from Stanford’s Dan Boneh (via Coursera) which I cannot recommend enough; one of my big take-aways from this class was the importance of Authenticated Encryption – that is a mode of encrypting multiple blocks of data so that not only is the data non-legible, but also tamper-resistant. For a bit more detailed description of authenticated encryption, see notes for a talk I gave which touched on the topic. One problem I found was that almost no software (including Lift, the web-framework I use most often) used authenticated encryption.

This led me to write a library which would add this functionality (and in the future, additional functionality to solve other, often poorly-implemented security concepts, such as password hashing) to Lift records (often known as “models” in other frameworks.) In addition, writing this library would allow me to implement some of the skills learned in the online course and also allow me to give something back to the Lift community. Though I began work on this library in my spare time, it became so useful that it runs at the heart of many of Toodalu’s upcoming applications.


The library is one of my latest pet projects, so it will likely change a bit between the time that I write this and the time that it is reviewed. I therefore apologize before-hand; filenames may have changed and functionality may have moved around a bit. If you’d like to revert to the code-base at the time of this writing, review everything before and including change-set 443f18fcc327.

The first interesting bit comes in the KeyManager (/src/main/scala/liftencryptedfields/KeyManager.scala .) Dealing with key storage is always a problem; instead of requiring the keys be provided as a string in a configuration file (or as an application parameter,) I chose to follow a standard created by Sun for JVM applications: keystores. Unfortunately, the keystore’s location and password must be given to the application some how, so I added these as configuration parameters – this isn’t ideal, but it does reduce configuration from one line per key to a constant two-lines. To make things a bit simpler on the library’s users, it uses the Record’s class name + field name to determine which key from the keystore to use.

Next up, a list of conversions from a useful type (such as a string, integer, enumeration, etc.) into an array of bytes which can then be encrypted (/src/main/scala/liftencryptedfields/conversions.scala .) The list is not exhaustive (currently containing strings and enumerations) and is meant to be easily extendible. To add a new conversion, you need only write a method which marshalls the data as an array of bytes and another method which de-marshalls that data. As new needs arise, I will continue to extend these conversions to cover the new use cases.

The algorithmic meat of the library rests in its Utility object (/src/main/scala/liftencryptedfields/Utility.scala .) This object contains a random number generator which lazily reseeds itself every hour (a must for any secure randomness,) as well as methods for AES-GCM-encrypting/decrypting data. Attempting to write encryption functions by yourself is always a bad idea, so instead of implementing GCM here, I rely on a well-vetted crypto library called “bouncy castle” (isn’t that wonderful?) The library isn’t exactly super-simple, however, so my library handles all of the book keeping, such as keeping track of the initialization vector (similar to a salt.)

The other classes might be interesting if you have a particular fascination with type theory (as I do,) but they do not contain much in the way of high concepts. For the most part, they are wrappers on previously discussed methods to allow a Record’s field to be an encrypted string/enumeration/optional string/ etc.

Technology Choices

  • Scala - As mentioned in the first sample, Scala is a wonderful language in which I spend most of my coding time. As such, it proved a natural choice for implementing authenticated encryption.
  • Lift - Again, Lift is a popular web framework; the project has had a short life time, but has evolved rapidly. While its built-in security measures aren’t particularly impressive, I use their record (“model”) system in many projects, so it makes sense to choose this framework for this library.
  • Bouncy Castle - Perhaps the best crypto alternative in the JVM ecosystem, Bouncy Castle adopts many crypto algorithms before they move in to mainline Java. This includes GCM, which is at the heart of this library.
  • Authenticated Encryption - This mechanism for encryption is essential for cutting-edge applications, but should really be more widely adopted. Data which has been tampered with cannot be decrypted, greatly improving the security of shared resources (and further firewalling the data.)