Stealing the keys to the kingdom

There are some interesting tidbits coming out about the Chinese hack of Google. Apparently the source code to Google’s SSO technology was a target (although this is misstated in the headline as a “password system”). It’s unknown at this point what source code (if any) was taken, but this highlights the nightmare scenario of the SSO world.

If a vulnerability is found in your token generation code such that someone can spoof a token, then your SSO system and every system connected to it is compromised.

Of course just having the source code is not in itself a problem. Typically there is a private key that is used to encrypt or sign the token. But protecting that private key is the issue and that is where the source code is key. If you think your key has been compromised you can replace it. But the code that authenticates the user and generates the token needs to get the private key to do the encryption (or signing (or both)). If the secret algorithm to access that key is compromised, then the attacker can then attempt to penetrate the system where that key lives and get the key. With the key and token generating code in hand the attacker can then access any SSO protected system.

And here is an ugly secret. If the SSO technology is public key encryption, they key on needs to exist where the token is initially generated. If it’s based on symmetric key encryption then the key has to exist on every server in the SSO environment.

So just use public key encryption, that solves the problem right? Not so fast. One critical aspect of SSO is inactive session timeout. That requires the token to be “refreshed” when used so that it expired based on inactivity. Refreshing the token at every server in the SSO system (every PEP if you will) requires either that server to have the key, or it make a remote calls to a common authentication service to refresh the token.

There are pluses and minuses to both approaches. One puts the keys to the kingdom in more locations but the other adds overhead to the token refresh. When security and performance collide, who do you think usually wins?

These kinds of trade offs are what make SSO so interesting to me.

Note that I am not talking about federated SSO (SAML or openid) or intranet SSO (Kerberos) as they present a different set of challenges.

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