Always Encrypted – A new column level security feature in SQL Server 2016

Always Encrypted (AE) is a new feature introduced in SQL Server 2016 to secure your data in SQL Server at column level. Perhaps, SQL Server has many options to secure the data, the new feature Always Encrypted stands out from the list with unique characteristics – “Always Encrypted”.

Before we get into details about Always Encrypted, let us quickly look at the security features in the SQL Server in comparison as an overview.

AE-Always Encrypted, DDM – Dynamic Data Masking, TDE – Transparent Data Encryption

Why do we call Always Encrypted?

As the name depicts, Always Encrypted feature in SQL Server always ensures your data encrypted, that means, the data at rest and in motion. The encryption and decryption happens at client application using an Always Encrypted driver. This separates the encryption from SQL Server database engine and enforces more security in a better controlled manner.

How do we implement Always Encrypted?

First and foremost action is to install the right version of SQL Server 2016.If you do not have the right version, you will not find the option “Encrypt Columns” in “Task” of the database options. If you are not using SSMS version 13.0.4001.0 or above, you will not be able to see this option in your SSMS.

You can find and download SP1

There are two ways, we can implement Always Encrypted in SQL Server using Wizard and T-SQL. However, we need to know that for existing table/column data, there is no way to implement the AE using T-SQL in SQL Server 2016(SP1). I mentioned the service pack as a caveat because Microsoft may change this behavior in future, but unlikely as of now. For existing data, we need to make sure the AE needs to be implemented using Wizard. It is quite good to be noted there is an option to generate PowerShell script for the existing data to encrypt that can be run later.

Using Wizard

Using T-SQL

WITH (  
  KEY_PATH = 'CurrentUser/my/B27A4A9FCC37F2C5B1807249FE1285CD4A40B88F');
ENCRYPTED_VALUE = 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
/*3*/ CREATE TABLE AlwaysEncryptedSampleSQL(
    COLLATE Latin1_General_BIN2 
    ENCRYPTION_TYPE = Deterministic, 

Why do we need two encryption keys?

Yes, Always Encrypted uses two keys – Column encryption key and master encryption key. Column encryption key is used to encrypt the value in the column and database engine stores the column encryption key in the SQL Server instance. However, master key is being stored in external key store like Windows Certificate store or Azure Key Vault and database engine will have metadata pointer to the external key store. Master key is responsible to encrypt the column encryption key.

How do we verify the above implementation?

1. Check the master key

SELECT name KeyName,column_master_key_id KeyID,
  key_store_provider_name KeyStore,
  key_path KeyPath
FROM sys.column_master_keys;

2. Check the column key

SELECT name KeyName,
  column_encryption_key_id KeyID
FROM sys.column_encryption_keys;

3. Check the sys.columns

Select name,collation_name,encryption_type_desc, encryption_algorithm_name,column_encryption_key_id 
From sys.columns where object_id in (object_id('AlwaysEncryptedSample'),object_id('AlwaysEncryptedSampleSQL'))

How do the application encrypt and decrypt the value?

Client application uses Always Encrypted driver. I would suggest you to go through “Using Always Encrypted with the ODBC Driver for SQL Server” to understand better the usage. Anyway, this blog post will be followed up with the next post, on which I am currently working on, to understand the performance impact.

What are the different types of encryption in Always Encryption feature?

Yes, AE comes up with two different type of encryption.

1. Deterministic
As the name suggests, this type will always produce the same encrypted value for a given text. Ideally, this may not be a good option for all the keys as a good intruder can easily understand the value by analyzing data pattern as an example, gender, polar questions etc. As the encrypted value for a given text is always same, the encrypted column can very well part of a join, grouping and indexing.

2. Randomized
As the name suggests, it will produce randomized value which will make the encryption more secure than the earlier.


1. There is no straight forward method to implement AE for existing data apart using the wizard. However, wizard can generate PowerShell Script to do the action later.
2. Encryption method – Deterministic is less secure compared to “randomized”.
3. Encryption method – Randomized cannot be part of joins/groups/indexing.
4. INSERT/UPDATE operations are not allowed directly to table unless through the client driver. We will receive the below error message.
Msg 206, Level 16, State 2, Line 5
Operand type clash: varchar is incompatible with varchar(8000) encrypted with (encryption_type = 'DETERMINISTIC', encryption_algorithm_name = 'AEAD_AES_256_CBC_HMAC_SHA_256', column_encryption_key_name = 'CEK_Auto1', column_encryption_key_database_name = 'test') collation_name = 'SQL_Latin1_General_CP1_CI_AS'

5. By specifying encryption setting in “Additional Connection Parameters” in SQL Connection window, who has access the encrypted table, can see the actual data. However, the login cannot modify or insert new data.

6. Column encryption changes the collation of the string column to Latin1_General_BIN2
7. Encryption will increase the size of the table

See Also

Please refer Transparent Data Encryption


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