Authentication Tokens

I have two websites. The first (on the server tarragon) is readily available on the internet to the public (you are looking at it now), and also has a username/password based login capability. Some selected people are able to get into the back end of this website. Mostly these are people who get their mail on tarragon, or who have websites on tarragon, or both. The login capability allows them to manage their own accounts, change their password, etc.

The second website (on the server oregano) is inaccessible (or at least non-functional) except to authorized users. The authorized users are exactly those people having a login credential on tarragon. The only way to achieve a usable connection to oregano is to first log on to tarragon, and click a link there. This will create a redirect to oregano, passing a token which will allow the connection to succeed. The website on oregano will politely decline to function unless an appropriate token is received.

This article is about building that token. The properties of the token are as follows. First it must provide the identity (username) of the user (the login used on tarragon). It must be encrypted, so that all (or at least part) of its contents are protected. It must not be replayable, that is, it should not be possible for someone to capture the token used by an authorized person, and reuse it later. This includes the provision that it must be time limited, the token should expire after a short time, and subsequently be useless. It should be possible to include other information in the token if needed. For exampe, the same token machinery can be (and is) used for sending an email to handle forgotten passwords, presuming that if joe has forgotten his password, we can send a link to joe’s email address and only joe will receive it.

In the first implementation, I thought to use joe’s password for the encryption. While this can be done, it is really a flawed plan, because I don’t actually have joe’s cleartext password, I only have the hashed version of it. Using joe’s hashed password as a key is obviously vulnerable to capturing the file containing the hashed passwords. The reason they are hashed at all, of course, is that capture of files full of user information occurs all too frequently. If tarragon is available on the internet, I am obliged to assume that a sufficiently motivated and funded attacker could get his hands on the user database. Of course, it is highly unlikely that tarragon would be an interesting target for such an attack. But just because the server doesn’t have national security secrets, that is no excuse to be sloppy.

So I reimplemented it using the certificates on the two machines. Both of the servers have certificates, and use tls for their connections, i.e. they are https instead of http sites. After a little futzing around and reading, I discovered a fairly straightforward way for the php code in server ‘a’ (tarragon) to capture the certificate for remote server ‘b’ (oregano), and extract it’s public key. Then tarragon can encrypt the token using oregano’s public key, so that only oregano can decrypt the token. I could go further, and encrypt again (actually first) using tarragon’s private key, so that oregano could verify that only tarragon could have sent it.

Actually, public key encryption isn’t really used for the token. Instead, a random key is chosen for a symmetric cipher, and the key itself is then encrypted with oregano’s public key, and subsequently decrypted on oregano with his private key. The encrypted key is sent along with the encrypted message.

The function I used in php is part of the openssl library in php, and is called openssl_seal (and the other end is openssl_open. There are lower level functions that would allow one to accomplish the same things, but these seemed straightforward to use. One problem however, is that openssl_seal is written to use RC4 for the cipher. RC4 is frowned upon as insecure in a number of contexts. Openssl_seal allows passing an additional parameter, to select a different cipher, but strangely has no provision for passing an initialization vector so one can’t use any cipher that requires an initialization vector. Eventually I decided to use AES in ECB mode, despite the problems with ECB. This passed syntax but failed horribly at run time – meaning the apache worker just seemed to disappear! In debugging it an error_log call before the openssl_seal was present, and an error_log call afterwards was not, and a surrounding try catch block was not triggered. WTF? It took two days to figure this out. So I just went back to not specifying a cipher and letting it use RC4, and it worked. For the moment at least, I’m leaving it with RC4, since I am only encoding a small token.

The trick to getting a remote certificate in PHP was to use the stream facility, which opens a socket. and a stream context which is a set of parameters to the stream. The stream context is set to use ssl, the socket is established to port 443, and then the stream context will happily yield up the peer certificate that it received during the tls negotiation.