Tuesday 15 March 2011

User-ids in a Shibboleth world

[This is a copy of a question posted to the JISC-SHIBBOLETH@JISCMAIL.AC.UK mailing list which, to date, hasn't seen much in the way of responses to the questions at the end]

A lot of existing web apps have wired into in the, often at a very low level, the idea that each 'user' has associated with them a unique, short-ish, fairly friendly identifier. Traditionally these were things like jw35 or 2006STUD42, though it's increasingly common to use an email address belonging to the user instead. Quite often these are (in fact or in practise) the primary key into the application's user database and they tend to get displayed (as in "Hello jw35", or in things like usage logs) and these two usages are often not distinguished.

When converting existing software for a SAML environment there's the question of what to use to fill this slot. If you have ePPN available then that will probably work (because it looks like an email address) but in the UK federation that's unlikely. The 'old' form of ePTID (rUL8A3M667VfsiCImQVFffN9cNk=@cam.ac.uk) might just about work, though it's ugly when displayed. The new form is close to unusable for display purposes:


Of course if you are creating accounts in advance and only later binding them to SAML identities you can use whatever user-id scheme you want, but what if you are creating accounts 'on the fly'?

We've noticed that 'off the shelf' Shibboleth adaptations (most recently for Plone and MediaWiki) tend to simply use what turns up in REMOTE_USER which, by default, will be the first of ePPN and the old and new forms of ePTID that isn't blank. In a UK federation context this doesn't really work, and I suspect many of these adaptations were written for contexts where ePPN is more widely available.

What have other people working in the UK environment done to address this problem, assuming you are seeing it too? Is there a 'best practise'?

Monday 14 March 2011

Consent to be required for cookies? (updated 2011-03-15 and 2011-05-11 and 2011-05-17)

An amendment to the EU Privacy and Electronic Communications Directive comes into effect on 25 May 2011. This makes it necessary to obtain consent before storing and retrieving usage information on users’ computers. Details are unclear, mainly because the UK government has apparently yet to publicise any information on how this requirement will be implemented in the UK, but in the limit it could require every web site to obtain informed user consent before setting any cookies, which is going to be interesting...

Here are some external references to the topic:
Updated 2011-03-15: More links
Updated 2011-05-11:
Updated 2011-05-17:

Wednesday 2 March 2011

Other people's content shown to be dangerous

In Promiscuous JavaScript considered dangerous I said that including content from elsewhere on your pages was dangerous, not only because the people supplying the content might be malicious but also because they might fail to prevent third parties from injecting malicious content.

Judging by this BBC News article this is exactly what happened recently to the web sites of the London Stock Exchange, Autotrader, the Vue cinema chain and a number of other organisations as a result of displaying adverts provided by the advertising firm Unanimis. This will have caused problems for these various organisations' clients, and reputational damage and hassle for the organisations themselves.

Ideally you'd carefully filter other people's content before including it in your pages. But you may not be able to do this if, for example, the supplier requires you to let everything through untouched or if you are using the promiscuous JavaScript approach. In such cases you are entirely dependent on the competence of the supplier and, as demonstrated here, some are more competent than others.