Wandering Key


A sensitive digital data either stored or transferred requires protection, and a most common approach to protect such data is to encrypt it with a best solution possible, which would guarantee the data security for years to come. While the modern encryption algorithms do offer a quite good data protection they do share the common weakness, and that weakness is the encryption keys themselves, which do require protection as well in order to avoid any leaks. Protecting of existing encryption keys might lead to complex and expensive solutions in overall architectural design of information systems as it would require to rely on additional components for Key Management. Usually the actual encryption keys are being stored on separate servers with restrictive access to them. Such design increases the complexity of the data model and, at the same time, decreases the reliability of the system as any additional component is prone to break like any other one.

There are many companies on the market today offering Key Management Solutions, but they all come down to the same standard approaches. It is either a Centralized Key Management as a most common solution with a Key Safe or a Vault dedicated to protect encryption keys or a Hierarchical (Onion) Architecture with a quite complex approach to access the keys.

Additionally the above mentioned approaches both share same weaknesses: the number of unique keys per object is limited and those keys are physically exist, hence do require protection.

In order to break the series of various key protection steps and to concentrate only on protection of data the obvious proposition would be to abandon storing of the encryption keys all together and generate those only when necessary. Furthermore the number of generated keys per each user or object or entity could be huge with tens of millions or even billions of unique keys.

The already developed and ready to use Wandering Key technology offers an elegant and efficient solution of this puzzle. Depending on the requirements the automatic key generation can be presented as a module attached to a database server or a standalone application or a FUSE mount or an embedded solution, etc.

The Wandering Key technology allows to abolish the necessity of storing and therefore protecting by any means the actual symmetrical encryption keys while keeping the data safe and secure with existing encryption algorithms. Millions of unique keys associated with the object which initiated the process of either encryption or decryption are generated on-the-fly and not being stored anywhere. The technology can be applied to any field which requires protecting of sensitive data such as data warehousing, file systems, communications, etc.

When encrypting communications the following approaches are most commonly used: TLS and E2EE. TLS uses a man in the middle, usually a server through which the communication takes place. Typically the protocol implies the certification of parties and the use of asymmetric keys at the beginning of communication. E2EE communication is the direct exchange of encrypted data between parties. An example would be a digital radio or exchange of information between a drone and a control station. The communication with a drone is chosen here as a characteristic prototype, but it can be any communication that requires encryption. Common to these approaches is the fact that the set of keys is limited and it is typically One object–One key for the entire communication session.

With the Wandering Key technology the above mentioned limitations in communications can be lifted while keeping the communication channels safe and secure as a different encryption key can be applied with each packet sent.

Wandering Key Technology

The technology relies on clusters and entities to manipulate virtual keys. The clusters imply database clusters, organizations, individual group of people, etc which coalesced to form a cluster. The entities imply objects within the cluster, such as database users, colleagues within the same organization, electronic equipment within a unit, etc.

Within a cluster each entity maintains a set of unique virtual keys not shared with other entities. The clusters are separate independent units which determine all possible keys which might be generated for any given entity. By design the keys between different clusters do not intersect.

In general the quantity of generated keys for each entity is determined by the task. In the provided example for the database engine the module will generate approximately 30M (33,554,431) of unique keys for each given entity, regardless of how many entities are present within the cluster.

If to engage, for example, astronomical objects here to describe the technology then a cluster can be imagined as an independent galaxy with a myriad of stars and where each star has its own set of unique to that galaxy planets. In this example a star is an entity and a planet is an encryption key.

Individual set of keys Needless to say that the generation of encryption keys by the Wandering Key technology is fundamentally different from the generation of session keys. Every entity has at disposal its own set of associated virtual keys which are generated on-the-fly as needed.

Database architecture This picture represents a part of a database server architecture that includes the key generation module. The module itself is an extension of the database engine and it is an essential part of the server when it comes down to either encryption or decryption of data. This architecture is much simpler than the centralized or hierarchical like approach for storing keys, as it is no different from a typical server architecture. If to reiterate it again then the advantage of such architecture is that the encryption keys are not part of the data, not stored anywhere, therefore cannot be compromised.

When working with databases this approach allows not only to avoid the problem of key leakage, but also to reduce overall system administration and maintenance costs due to elimination of needless equipment dedicated to Key Vaults and such. Furthermore, this approach allows to reduce requirements for backup data storage centers, as the backups can be stored in public cloud services without resorting to expensive secure storage services.

Real World Testing

As it was mentioned above the number of keys generated for each entity is somewhat limited, and in current configuration for the database engine it consists of approximately 30M of unique keys. In real world applications the keys are not chosen sequentially as it is hard to imagine that there will be such a large number of records encrypted at once for a particular user/entity. Therefore the keys from the set are being chosen randomly and some issues caused by the random generator were expected.

To clarify a potential problem let's imagine that we have a set with only 10 keys available and want to choose 5 of those for encryption. In theory a pseudo random generator might yield a sequence of following numbers: 1, 11, 21, 31 and 41, from which we would determine that every time the key #1 should be used for encryption. Although in our case the set of keys is quite large, but the numbers produced by the random generator might exceed the number of keys in the set and the keys might be repeated. That is why the technology is called the Wandering Key as it is expected that once in a while the same key would be reused, but its usage would be unpredictable or in other words the key would wander.

The testing was carried out in Ubuntu Linux 22.04 LTS operating environment. The database server used for data processing was PostgreSQL 14.5. That server was functionally extended with the vlxaux.so key generation module to test the technology in a multi-user environment.

Key Wandering Test

Around 20 tests were performed with 10,000,000 generated keys for each one with the same entity for all tests. The goal of these tests was to find out how many possible repetitions of the same key might occur. All tests yielded similar results. The first 8 tests were chosen as examples for this article.

Histogram 1 Histogram 2 The results of the tests are presented on histograms shown, while the second histogram below depicts the same results in logarithmic scale. The following tables present more detailed information on the results.

What preliminary conclusions can be made? There was a small number of keys which were repeated 3 times each. All tests proved that the number of repetitions is negligible, no more than 3 repetitions of the same key per 10,000,000. Thus, on one hand we have some keys repeated, but on another hand the percentage of repetitions is minuscule and it is less then 0.0001%. The number of repetitions can be further minimized by increasing the set of generated keys, which is easy to achieve given the resources permit so. But whether it would be practical or not remains uncertain, as to generate about 30M keys for each entity requires 16Kb of static memory, and if to increase each set, for instance, to a billion of keys there will be a need for about of 500Kb extra, which might not be feasible on busy servers.

The table below represents the total quantity of keys generated for each test from requested 10,000,000 and from which it can be concluded that roughly 10,000 of keys were seen at least twice.

Test 1Test 2Test 3Test 4 Test 5Test 6Test 7Test 8
9990577999053099905189990403 9990388999072199906059990691

In the following table is the actual data yield by each test. The leftmost column represents the number of repetitions found. The numbers in columns represent the quantity of keys which were repeated. Obviously when the number of repetitions equals to 1 it means that for those keys there were no repetitions detected.

Test 1Test 2Test 3Test 4 Test 5Test 6Test 7Test 8
19981160998106999810439980812 9980783998145199812159981392
29411945294689585 9598926193859289
36976 79510
40000 0000

According to the last test there were 10 keys out of 10,000,000 repeated 3 times each. Below is the table showing the wandering of those keys. The numbers represent the positions where each key was seen.

Key 1Key 2Key 3Key 4Key 5 Key 6Key 7Key 8Key 9Key 10
411354550613468664157187393300740 2227363580848649897618274391923135
34674661534378534016868279043622090 96981507940642338750829441993222319
83186013658000564126175941233783247 99463249770118736328833633739346091

Since the tests were intentionally done for one single entity, it should be noted that some keys which were unique in one test were also seen in another while being unique in it as well. In other words the distribution among, say, 100,000,000 keys would be same as for 10,000,000 keys with the only difference that there will be more repetitions. In fact the combined set with 80,000,000 already generated keys yielded only one key repeated 5 times.

Test for Uniqueness of Generated Key Sets for Different Entities

For this test there were randomly chosen 50 entities and for each entity were generated 10,000,000 keys. The test passed with flying colors as not a single key was found to be common for that group of entities. Although such result was expected by design that quite laborious work was completed and all 1225 handshakes between 50 tables were made. To run more intensive tests does not seem necessary at this point, as technologically the keys cannot be shared between entities by design.

Performance of Key Generation Module

All tests including this one were performed on a machine with Intel i5-4690K CPU @ 3.50GHz processor. The average speed of generation was about 800,000 keys per second, from which it can be concluded that the module does not impede normal server operations.


Although the Wandering Key technology was initially developed for abolishing the storing of encryption keys within databases its possible applications go far beyond the database only practice. First of all for a normal use within a database cluster there is no practical need to have in hand tens or hundreds of millions of keys for each entity. Such necessity may arise for communication purposes or for encrypting of big file systems or for systems where the number of entities is limited. In such scenarios the number of keys per entity could be increased to billions to make sure that each sent packet is encrypted with a different key. For file systems the key could be changed for every encrypted page, this would prevent the necessity of breaking files apart and scatter those parts across the network, as it happens in today's practice.


The vlxaux.so extension of sqlite3 database engine was developed for demonstration purposes and it is available for download as a ready to use package. The extension works only in Linux environment and on x86_64 machines. The module utilizes AES CBC block cipher mode to either encrypt or decrypt data, and it is based on mbedTLS encryption library. Furthermore, the module incorporates various compression algorithms for more efficient storing of large data blocks.

The distribution package also consists of a powerful Password Management System as a working example and it is based on the vlxaux.so extension of the sqlite3 database engine. Besides, into the distribution is included a database with some personal data. While in that database the entities are exposed as they should be, the sensitive data cannot be decrypted, as it was created within another cluster and serves the only purpose to demonstrate the capability of technology.

The efile utility is another powerful tool utilizing the Wandering Key technology is included for demonstration purposes and it can be used as a general purpose utility to encrypt and decrypt files. It is available for download as a package from here. Needless to say that it is also limited to work only in Linux environment and on x86_64 machines.