Securing User Emails in Rails

There is an updated version of this post.

The GDPR goes into effect next Friday. Whether or not you serve European residents, it’s a great reminder that we have the responsibility to build systems in a way that protects user privacy.

Email addresses are a common form of personal data, and they’re often stored unencrypted. If an attacker gains access to the database or backups, emails will be compromised.

This post will walk you through a practical approach to protecting emails. It works with Devise, the most popular authentication framework for Rails, and is general enough to work with others.


We’ll use two concepts to make this happen: encryption and blind indexing. Encryption gives us a way to securely store the data, and blind indexing provides a way to look it up.

Blind indexing works by computing a hash of the data. You’re probably familiar with hash functions like MD5 and SHA1. Rather than one of these, we use a hash function that takes a secret key and uses key stretching to slow down brute force attempts. You can read more about blind indexing here.

We’ll use the attr_encrypted gem for encryption and the blind_index gem for blind indexing.


Let’s assume you have a User model with an email field.

Add to your Gemfile:

gem 'attr_encrypted'
gem 'blind_index'

And run:

bundle install

Next, let’s replace the email field with an encrypted version. Create a migration:

rails g migration add_encrypted_email_to_users

And add:

class AddEncryptedEmailToUsers < ActiveRecord::Migration[5.2]
  def change
    # encrypted data
    add_column :users, :encrypted_email, :string
    add_column :users, :encrypted_email_iv, :string
    add_index :users, :encrypted_email_iv, unique: true

    # blind index
    add_column :users, :encrypted_email_bidx, :string
    add_index :users, :encrypted_email_bidx, unique: true

    # drop original here unless we have existing users
    remove_column :users, :email

We use one column to store the encrypted data, one to store the IV, and another to store the blind index.

We add a unique index on the IV since reusing an IV with the same key in AES-GCM (the default algorithm for attr_encrypted) will leak the key.

Then migrate:

rails db:migrate

Next, generate keys. We use environment variables to store the keys as hex-encoded strings (dotenv is great for this). Here’s an explanation of why pack is used. Do not commit them to source control. Generate one key for encryption and one key for hashing. You can generate keys in the Rails console with:


For development, you can use these:


Add to your user model:

class User < ApplicationRecord
  attr_encrypted :email, key: [ENV["EMAIL_ENCRYPTION_KEY"]].pack("H*")
  blind_index :email, key: [ENV["EMAIL_BLIND_INDEX_KEY"]].pack("H*")

pack is used to decode the hex value

Create a new user and confirm it works.

Existing Users

If you have existing users, we need to backfill the data before dropping the email column. We temporarily use a virtual attribute - protected_email - so we can backfill without downtime.

class User < ApplicationRecord
  attr_encrypted :protected_email, key: [ENV["EMAIL_ENCRYPTION_KEY"]].pack("H*"), attribute: "encrypted_email"
  blind_index :protected_email, key: [ENV["EMAIL_BLIND_INDEX_KEY"]].pack("H*"), attribute: "email", bidx_attribute: "encrypted_email_bidx"

  before_validation :protect_email, if: -> { email_changed? }

  def protect_email
    self.protected_email = email

Backfill the data in the Rails console:

User.where(encrypted_email: nil).find_each do |user|

Then update the model to the desired state:

class User < ApplicationRecord
  attr_encrypted :email, key: [ENV["EMAIL_ENCRYPTION_KEY"]].pack("H*")
  blind_index :email, key: [ENV["EMAIL_BLIND_INDEX_KEY"]].pack("H*")

  # remove this line after dropping email column
  self.ignored_columns = ["email"]

Finally, drop the email column.


We also need to make sure email addresses aren’t logged. Add to config/initializers/filter_parameter_logging.rb:

Rails.application.config.filter_parameters += [:email]

Use Logstop to filter anything that looks like an email address as an extra line of defense. Add to your Gemfile:

gem 'logstop'

And create config/initializers/logstop.rb with:



We now have a way to encrypt data and query for exact matches. You can apply this same approach to other fields as well. For more security, consider a key management service to manage your keys.

Published May 14, 2018

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Use them however you’d like (licensed under CC0).