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Requirements Feedback: Solving a Security Hole and the Namespace Resolution Problem

From: John Boyer <jboyer@uwi.com>
Date: Tue, 15 Jun 1999 14:03:29 -0700
Message-ID: <003501beb772$85160480$9ccbf4cc@kuratowski.uwi.bc.ca>
To: <reagle@w3.org>, "Dsig group" <w3c-ietf-xmldsig@w3.org>
Before starting, let me first send my regrets regarding the Oslo meeting.  I
made prior arrangements months ago which cannot be moved now.  Instead, I'd
like to provide this document describing some problems I found in the
current thinking about signed XML.  I hope it is possible for the group to
address the concerns and recommendations below, and I hope that the concerns
will be added to the current Brown IETF draft.

John Boyer
Software Development Manager
UWI.Com -- The Internet Forms Company

1. Introduction

This document will describe a solution to a security hole in the current
thinking on signed XML.  For those of you who remember my presentation at
the first signed XML workshop, I discussed the importance of formulating a
good message M to be signed, and I used an HTML submission as an example of
a bad message.  The current requirements document specifies that we will be
able to sign internal and external resources "by use of a Manifest" as
defined in the Brown IETF draft.  Though it is more difficult to see the
problem, this idea also suffers from the 'poor message' problem.

This assertion is made in the context of many recent emails to the xml-dsig
list regarding the canonicalization of namespace references.  From these
emails, it is my understanding that the group wants to perform a replacement
of namespace references with something that retains the information of the
namespace binding provided by an xmlns attribute in an ancestor element.  I
hope to show that the current attempts to resolve this problem are futile
insofar as they do not and cannot address the generalized problem.

2. The General Problem

The problem many have been addressing is that of canonicalizing an element
that includes a namespace reference.  The problem is that the namespace
binding may appear as an attribute of an ancestor element such that the
reference must be resolved as part of canonicalizing the descendant element.
The generalization of this is that ancestor elements may contain attributes
which 'qualify' or 'change the meaning of' an element.  It is not sufficient
to solve this problem only for the xmlns attribute.  Furthermore, since XML
is a grammar devoid of lexicon, we cannot know which attributes of a given
XML extension language have this property.

The ancestor attribute problem is only a specific instance of a further
generalization:  in a given XML extension language, elements can derive
meaning based on the tag names and attributes of ancestor elements, based on
their element depth relative to those ancestor elements, and even based on
sibling elements.

3. The Security Hole

The current Manifest definition in the Brown IETF draft permits a resource
to be all or portions of a document using an XLink.  Suppose that a number
of non-contiguous element blocks must be signed within a document.  An
XPointer identifies each contiguous block of elements, and a hash of each
block would be stored in the Manifest.  When it comes time to generate a
signature, a canonical representation of the Manifest is hashed, and the
result is encrypted.  The problem is that the order in which the resource
definitions appear in the manifest is not guaranteed to be the order in
which those elements appeared in the source document.  The depth of the
signed elements within the source document is also not preserved, nor are
qualifying attributes from ancestor elements.  Failing to capture any of
this information is as much of a security hole as if we left out whatever
was *inside* the element's start and end tags.

4. A Proposed Solution

Is there really a secure solution to this problem?  It is possible for a
program to present anything to a signer, then apply the user's digital
signature to anything else.  It is always possible to fool the signer since
we are allowed to run code on the signer's computer.  This problem cannot be
solved by a signed XML specification.  It is solved by people who download
signed programs from reputable development establishments and test those
programs for proper operation.

A signed XML spec can, however, simplify this code verification process by
producing signed messages that are as close as possible to the messages
processable by the signed code.  This does not simply mean that signatures
on XML resources should be XML.  It means that if a message to be signed
pertains to an XML document, then the message should actually be the same
type of document (as defined by the root element).  An application developer
would need to work harder to design both the manifest and DTD should
validation be required, but it is at least possible to take the message that
actually got signed and provide that to a 'viewer' during verification so
that the verifier could see (or sense) exactly what the signer signed.

Hence the proposal is this.  A resource element should pertain to a whole
computer file.  Within a resource element, multiple XPointers should
indicate the portions of the document to be signed.  The message to be
hashed would be constructed by sequentially passing through the entire
document, retaining all elements indicated as well as the start and end tags
(with attributes and unaltered namespace qualifiers) of all ancestors of the
required elements.  The fingerprint attached to the resource is expected to
be a hash of this message.  Rather than trying to find ways of storing the
information inside the element, the solution is simply to keep it on the
outside where it appears naturally.  In this way, the hash represents a
message that retains the order of required elements, their depth, and all
possible ancestor element qualifiers (tags, attributes).

This method should also be applied to the generation of the signature
message containing the manifest so that information outside of the manifest
element that affects the interpretation of the manifest can be signed.

With respect to the root element, it should also be noted that preservation
of leading and trailing comments, processing instructions and so forth, as
well as the DTD must be preserved.  With respect to all elements, comments
appearing before the start tag and after the end tag should also be
preserved.  It seems that external entities (e.g. externally defined dtd's)
can be left out of the message for a given file since they can be validated
separately by another resource entry in the manifest.

5. Application-Independent Verification

The method described in the previous section is actually a canonicalization
algorithm (or at least part of one).  It may suffice as a signed XML
requirement to A) impose a requirement on the XML canonicalization group to
provide this method as an alternative, and B) require that this
canonicalization method be used by XML signatures.

A number of times the group has asserted that the calculation of resource
fingerprints should be offloaded to the specific application.  However, we
should instead be specifying the canonicalization algorithm used (or stick
to having the one proposed above).  This is no different that being required
to specify the hash algorithm used to generate the fingerprint.
Furthermore, the requirement moves signed XML closer to the ideal of
globally secure resources.  By defining how to formulate the message to be
hashed, it becomes possible to create application-independent XML document
processors (like workflow packages) that can verify the signature as well as
any internal and external resources that may need to be verified.

6. Conclusion

There are other possible methods for solving the problems, but the proposed
solution solves all of the given problems by a single method, so it may be
preferrable to those who ascribe to Occam's razor.  The proposed solution
simplifies the task of offering a "What you sense is what you sign"
paradigm, it solves the namespace problem in a simple way, and indeed solves
the general problem of requiring ancestor attributes, ancestor tags, depth
information and order of relevant siblings.  Finally, by specifying exactly
how all applications should generate the message to be hashed, we move
closer to the goal of globally secure resources.  Rather than trying to push
information inside an element, we leave it where it was, on the outside.

John Boyer
Software Development Manager
UWI.Com -- The Internet Forms Company
Received on Tuesday, 15 June 1999 17:01:31 UTC

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