Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Authentication: Think before you proxy

There are three obvious ways to add authentication such as Ucam Webauth or Shibboleth or OpenID to a web application:
  • Add the authentication code to the application itself (what the Java world calls 'Application Managed Security')
  • Implement the authentication in the web server or container hosting the application (Java's 'Container Managed Security')
  • Implement the authentication in an HTTP proxy in front of the application
The proxy option has some obvious quick gains: a single proxy can protect multiple applications; it's normally easy to leverage existing 'container managed' implementations to build such proxies; using a proxy probably requires much less modifications of existing applications (sometimes none). But I'm going to argue that this approach, while appropriate and even necessary in some circumstances, should be avoided where possible. Here are some reasons:
  • Security: to be useful, the proxy has to pass on information (such as user name at the very least) to its downstream client and obviously has to do this is a way that can't be influenced by an attacker. About the only option (if you are sticking to HTTP for communication between the proxy and its downstream client) is by adding extra HTTP request headers. It's not easy to be absolutely sure  that these headers can't somehow be injected by an attacker (by talking directly to the downstream client, by supplying them in a request and convincing the proxy to pass them on, etc., etc.).
  • Availability of attributes: Shib and other similar systems potentially make lots of information about the authenticating user available as attributes. Unless you arrange for your proxy to pass all of these on (and there could be lots and you might not know in advance what they all are) then your clients will loose out. There's also the problem that (in theory, if not in practise) that users are able to control what information about them is disclosed to which services. With multiple services behind a single proxy it's going to be a case of one size having to fit all.
  • Confused logs: clients behind proxies see all connections as coming from the proxy. This makes their logs less useful than they might be and frustrates any attempt to limit access by IP address (which is actually a bad thing anyway IMHO, but that's another story). There are ways around this, though most then suffer from the security problems mentioned above.
  • One more system: the proxy is one more system to build, maintain and in particular to understand. I have a theory that authentication services in some big web applications are a bit 'hit and miss' (and 'electronic journals' are big offenders here) precisely because they are big, layered applications that almost no one (or perhaps actually no one in a few cases) really understands.
I think my underlying feeling would be that a proxy is an entirely appropriate, if not quite as simple as it first appears, way to implement authentication for some particulare application, but that care should be taken not to slip into using one in every case. Like they say, once you've got a hammer everything starts looking like a nail...

No comments:

Post a Comment