Dan GriffinWelcome to the 14th edition of the JW Secure Informer, our bi-monthly newsletter. This is an opportunity to share what’s on our radar, specifically with respect to enterprise network security, but also regarding IT and business more generally.

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Claims Come in Many Flavors

Jw Secure Informer callout blurbAs the quote from Butler Lampson emphasizes, access control for any valuable resource on a computer must ultimately be determined at that computer. Sounds simple enough, but as any IT manager will tell you, managing access control in such a granular way across a diverse network environment is expensive and error prone. However, claims-based authorization technologies have shown promise in reducing that complexity and risk. This article describes where IT is today and how claims technology allows IT to overcome the limitations of currently deployed systems.

Most existing access control systems depend on two steps, authentication of the user and authorization of access rights. This simple model worked well for a reasonably large collection of users at any one enterprise accessing resources within that enterprise.

Two trends are making this model difficult to sustain. First, we find an increasing number of government and enterprise rules on who can access information, in what location, and at what date. Second, we find that partnering on projects across company boundaries is increasingly common. Users with a legitimate business need to access enterprise assets do not have a known identity within that enterprise. The result is that a single user in a large enterprise belongs to many project-specific security groups, has multiple credentials at the various companies whose resources need to be accessed, and may not even be an actual employee of any of them. Existing authorization tools don’t handle this well.

Role-based Access Control (RBAC) was one solution to this growing problem, allowing the IT administrator to assign users to roles on a temporary basis. Implementation has proved to be problematic, though. At its simplest, the RBAC concepts can be implemented with security groups. Unfortunately, in practice, at scale, the resulting list of security groups grows large. Furthermore, even with RBAC in place, establishing trust across organizational boundaries remained a separate problem.

In response to this need, the OASIS security team created the Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML) for cross-organizational use. While early implementations suffered from bloated user tokens and an overly complex standard, more recent efforts focus on providing only those claims immediately useful to a given service or resource. In this model, the resource owner specifies a policy that mandates a set of user capabilities. The necessary claims are packaged inside a token that is small enough to fit into web URLs and cookies (thereby supporting RESTful web services, for example). This token is then signed by a Security Token Service (STS) that is trusted by the line of business service and/or its access control solution (see the following figure).

Jw Secure Informer imagery

Typically, claims included in the authorization token consist of data about the user and the user’s computer (or mobile device). The claims data are collected from a variety of sources, including traditional authentication services provided by Kerberos, for example, or social identity providers like Windows Live or Facebook. Each claim in the token is one datum describing an attribute of the user or computer that is useful to an access control process. A user claim will be an attribute such as the user name, email address, physical address, or a role that the user is assigned. The resource owner can specify a list of acceptable identity providers for the user’s selection as well as a list of required claims.

JW Secure has built a variety of claims-based authorization solutions for our customers that combine requirements policies from resource owners and identity providers with user’s privacy desires. These solutions enable users to experience nearly friction-free access to resources while strictly enforcing the needs of the resource owners such as: physical location of the client, specific role of the user, time-of-day, security setting on the client computer, two-factor user authentication and other custom requirements mandated by governance regulations.

Further Reading