The European Patent Office considered row-based selective auditing in an relational database system technical. Here are the practical takeaways from the decision T 0963/09 (Selective auditing/ORACLE) of 5.6.2014 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.07:
The invention underlying the present decision relates to providing security in computerized databases. Databases oftentimes store highly sensitive data, such as salaries, corporate financial data, and even classified military secrets. For security reasons it is essential to be able to audit accesses to this sensitive data. Conventional database systems typically provide a general auditing facility that records an audit trail containing general information about the user and the query issued. However, conventional auditing facilities have a number of shortcomings. They do not record specific information about the application, the session environment or most importantly, the query results. Consequently, information gathered by a conventional auditing facility is frequently insufficient to reconstruct an event, or even to determine whether access rights have been violated (cf. WO 01/82118 A2, p. 1, l. 19-28). Hence, the application intends to provide an auditing mechanism that can specify a finer granularity of audit conditions during accesses to relational tables in order to minimize the number of false audit records that are generated (cf. WO 01/82118 A2, p. 2, l. 3-5).
Fig. 1 of WO 01/82118 A2
Claim 1 (main request)
1. A method for selectively auditing accesses to a relational database system (109), comprising:
receiving a query (123) from a client (102) at a database server (110) that processes queries for the relational database system, wherein the relational database system comprises a plurality of relational tables (113), and each of the relational tables includes an auditing flag (206) to indicate whether auditing is enabled for the relational table;
determining whether auditing is enabled by checking all of the tables referenced by the query to see if an auditing flag is set for the tables, and if so, modifying the query prior to processing the query by inserting monitoring logic into the query for causing an audit record to be created and recorded for rows that satisfy an auditing condition;
processing the query at the database server to produce a query result, wherein processing the query causes an audit record to be created only for rows in the relational tables that satisfy the query conditions and are accessed by the query and that satisfy the auditing condition;
recording the audit record in an audit record store (118); and
returning the query result (124) to the client.
Is it patentable?
The first instance examining division decided that the independent claims of the main request lacked an inventive step in view of two cited prior art documents. Apart from the discussion of the prior art, the Board expressed some concerns in the summons whether the claimed subject-matter is technical at all:
7.6 In the communication accompanying the summons, the Board observed that auditing of database accesses, while in itself a technical operation, in the context of the present invention appeared not to serve any specific technical purpose going beyond the act of auditing. Similarly, the motivation for making auditing selective, i.e. limiting auditing of database accesses to accesses of rows satisfying a particular auditing condition, appeared to be non-technical.
During the oral hearing, the appellant argued against this (preliminary) view of the Board in charge:
7.8 At the oral proceedings, the appellant explained that the claimed invention allowed row-based selective auditing to be performed based on an auditing condition that referred to fields that were not included in the query result returned to the client.
Apparently, the Board followed this argument and considered the claimed subject-matter of the main request to involve an inventive step:
7.9 In view of this explanation the Board accepts that the claimed solution to the problem of implementing selective auditing cannot be regarded, without documentary evidence, as a mere obvious possibility.
Hence, at least implicitly, the Board in charge also considered the claimed subject-matter of the main request to be of technical nature and set the first instance decision aside.
You can read the whole decision here: T 0963/09 (Selective auditing/ORACLE) of 5.6.2014.
Patrick is a European patent attorney at BARDEHLE PAGENBERG. He specializes in software patents in Europe both from a prosecution and litigation point of view.