Sunday, December 21, 2008

better security, not always more security

Today's investigative investigations have taken me to the land of Distributed Objects, that somewhat famous implementation of the Proxy pattern used for intra-process, inter-process and inter-machine communication in Cocoa. Well, by people who measure whether it's a performance hog, rather than those who quote it; as a hint, it was indeed a significant overhead when your CPU was a 25MHz 68030 and your network link a 10BASE-2 coaxial wire. These days we can spend around those problems freely.

Specifically, I wondered whether I should add discussion of the authentication capabilities in PDO to the FAQ entry. Not that it's frequently asked - indeed, it's a NAQ - but because getting mentions of security into a Usenet FAQ is likely to cause newbies to be thinking about security, which is possibly a good thing (for the world, not so much my uniquely employable attributes). But I decided no, though the subject is interesting, it's not because of the technicality, but the philosophy.

Distributed Objects works by sending NSPortMessage messages over NSConnection connections. The connections and message-passing bumph are peer-to-peer, but DO adds some client-server distinction by having servers register their vended connections with name servers and clients look up the interesting vendors in said name servers. By default, anything goes; all connections are honoured and all clients serviced. There are two security features (both implemented as delegate methods) baked into DO, though. The most interesting of the two is the authentication.

The reason that the authentication feature is interesting is that it's implemented in such a way as to make non-security-conscious developers question the security. The end sending the NSPortMessage includes some data based on the constituent parts of the message, and the end receiving the message decides whether to accept it based on knowledge of the constituents and of the data. On the face of it, this looks like shared-secret encryption, with the shared secret being the algorithm used to hash the port message. It also appears to have added no security at all, because the message is still sent in plain text. In fact, what this gives us is more subtle.

All that we know is that given the source information and the sender's authentication data, the receiver gets to decide whether to accept the sender's message. We don't necessarily know the way that the receiver gets to that decision. Perhaps it hashes the information using the same algorithm as the sender. Perhaps it always returns YES. Perhaps it always expects the authentication data to be 42. On the other hand, perhaps it knows the public key of the sender, and the authentication data is a signature derived from the content and the sender's private key. Or perhaps the "authentication data" isn't used at all, but the source material gives the server a chance to filter malicious requests.

Now all of that is very interesting. We've gone from a system which looked to be based on a shared secret, to one which appears to be based on whichever authentication approach we decide is appropriate for the task at hand. Given a presumed-safe inter-process link, we don't need to be as heavyweight about security as to require PKI; whereas if the authentication were provided by a secure tunnel such as DO-over-SSL, we'd have no choice but to accept the cost of the PKI infrastructure. Given the expectation of a safe server talking to hostile clients, the server (or, with some amount of custom codery, a DO proxy server) can even sanitise or reject malicious messages. Or it could both filter requests based on authentication and on content. The DO authentication mechanism has baked in absolutely zero policy about how authentication should proceed, by letting us answer the simple question: should this message be processed? Yes or no? Choose an approach to answering this question based not on what you currently believe could never be circumvented, but on what you currently believe is sufficient for the environment in which your DO processes will live. If a shared secret is sufficient and adds little overhead, then do that, rather than 4096-bit asymmetric encryption.

By the way, the second security feature in DO is the ability to drop a connection when it's requested. This allows a DO server to survive a DoS, even from a concerted multitude of otherwise permissible clients.

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