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Access Control Breakout @ Orlando IETF

From: Jim Whitehead <ejw@ics.uci.edu>
Date: Thu, 31 Dec 1998 15:15:33 -0500
To: WEBDAV WG <w3c-dist-auth@w3.org>
Message-id: <000001be34fa$52a70b20$38f237a6@galileo>
Here are the minutes I recorded for the access control breakout session held
at the Orlando IETF.  Please let me know if you have any corrections or

- Jim


Breakout session on WebDAV Access Control
Wednesday, December 9, starting at 15:30

A breakout session on access control for WebDAV was held on Wednesday,
December 9, 1998.  This was not a official meeting of the WebDAV working
group.  However, since the discussions are of general interest to working
group members, these minutes were taken to record the discussion.  Jim
Whitehead recorded the minutes, and attempted to mediate floor control
during the session.  In attendance during the breakout session were: Jim
Amsden, Derek Atkins, Ken Coar, Yaron Goland, Paul Hill, Alex Hopmann, Manoj
Kasichainula, Rohit Khare, Paul Leach, Lisa Lippert, Larry Masinter, Judy
Slein, Jim Whitehead.


The first discussion concerned the scope of the access control effort.  It
was noted that the web in general, not just WebDAV, has a need for a
protocol for access control.  It was recommended that WebDAV access control
develop a model document, so that WebDAV access control can be applied to
other domains/protocols more easily.  The model document can separate out
those aspects of the access control protocol which are not specifically tied
to WebDAV.

** The attendees agreed that the access control effort should attempt HTTP
access control, as well as WebDAV access control, unless it is proven to be
too difficult to do both.  That is, the protocol should use WebDAV
mechanisms to set and read access control, but access control should be
applicable to HTTP operations in general, and not just limited to WebDAV


There was some discussion over who is intended to be the user of this
protocol.  Is the access control protocol intended for users who will be
performing authoring, or is it intended for use by system administrators,
who are interested in access control across an entire site.


The topic of inheritance was discussed.  It was noted that the access
control inheritance within WebDAV is WebDAV-specific, since it is tied to
WebDAV collections.  However, Calendaring and Scheduling has a different
inheritance model.  A participant raised the question of whether we should
support multiple kinds of inheritance.  Today, servers support multiple
kinds of inheritance, and hence it would be desirable for the protocol to
accomodate these servers.  However, the complexity of the user interface on
the client is an important issue.  Supporting multiple inheritance models
would make the user interface on the client more complex, and, some argued,
too complex.

There was a suggestion to examine the Java Web Server for lessons which can
be learned from its access control model, which is object-oriented.


A short-term solution for access control is to have a property recorded on
each resource which records a link pointing to a Web page which contains an
access control form.  By manipulating the form using a Web browser, a user
can modify the access control for the resource.  This approach has the
benefit that it can accomodate a wide range of repositories, and each
repository can have an access control user interface which is tailored to
the repository.  This approach can be specified and fielded quickly.

The most significant drawback to this approach its lack of support for a
programatic interface to access control.  Furthermore, users will be
required to understand the access control mechanism for each server they
author against.  If the goal is to provide access control for the Web, and
not just for WebDAV, the Web-form approach has the drawback that it depends
on WebDAV properties, which are not understood by downlevel Web clients.
However, if these clients discover the Web-form page without reading a
property, they could manipulate the Web-form. Finally, the Web-form approach
provides only a coarse degree of interoperability.

However, it was noted that once a protocol for access control was finished,
the access control property might still be useful as an "escape hatch" for
more sophisticated access control capabilities.  However, if this were done,
it would be necessary to call out which functionality can be access via the
Web-form interface, and which can be accessed programatically.

Yaron Goland volunteered to write up a draft specification for the Web-form


Groups were felt to be out of scope, since they are a (LDAP) directory
concept.  However, the Java Web Server supports a notion of realms (HTTP


Access control for resources which are accessible via multiple protocols,
such as via HTTP and FTP, directly leads to this issue.  For resources which
are accessible via multiple protocols, access control via only one protocol
is not a viable security model.  One way to address this problem is to
ensure that access control set via one protocol actually sets the access
control for the underlying repository where the data is stored.  In this
way, access control set via one protocol will apply to all other protocols
used to access the same resource.

However, it is a difficult problem to map access control rights in the
protocol into the appropriate rights in the underlying repository. The
difficulty arises from the case where there is not a 1:1 mapping of rights
from protocol to repository, which either leads to unpredictable behavior
(rejecting a request), or the inadvertent opening of security holes
(performing the request has unintended side-effects). This concern applies
to all network protocols, and is not specific to the Web, or WebDAV.

The following "database cell" scenario was discussed during the breakout
session, and highlights this issue.  Assume there is a database which is
being accessed via WebDAV.  Each cell in the database contains a PUT body
and WebDAV properties.  The database has a very simple "1 write bit" access
control mechanism - when the write bit is "1", you can write to the entire
cell, and when the write bit is "0", you cannot write to any of the cell's
contents.  Assume the WebDAV access control protocol has separate access
rights for "write properties" and "write (PUT) body".

The problem arises when trying to map the "write properties" access control
right into the rights supported by the repository.  If the client submits a
protocol request to grant it the "write properties" right, the repository
has two choices:
1) It can refuse to set the write bit for the database cell, causing the
protocol request to fail.
2) It can set the write bit, causing the protocol request to succeed.  This
has the unintended consequence of allowing write access to the PUT body as
well, thus creating a security risk.

There are two general approaches for handling this issue:
1) Define a normative (generic) set of rights (e.g., the "DAV set" of
rights), some of which might not apply to a given server.  A client then
performs access control operations using this set of rights.  This approach
is easiest for clients.
2) Discover the set of rights.  A client must first perform discovery on the
set of rights supported by the server, and then may perform access control
operations using these rights.

There was agreement that setting an access control right should not result
in unintended consequences, that is, consequences which are not safe with
respect to the underlying semantics of the store.

There was general agreement with the principle: in the event of a conflict
between the semantics of the underlying repository's access control
capabilities, and the semantics of a particular access control protocol
request, the underlying repository semantics should always take precedence.
There was general recognition that some access control protocol requests
might not be mappable into the access control operations supported by a
given repository.

There was agreement that the mapping issue needs to be recorded -- these
minutes are a start at that, though it should also be explicitly discussed
in the protocol document, and probably also the goals document.

There was agreement that it would help discussion to know the access control
semantics for several repositories.

Finally, it was noted that IMAP access control should be examined for
lessons learned.  It's approach is similar to #2 above in that the client
first performs discovery, which returns sets of methods whose access control
can be modified as a set.


There was discussion at the meeting on the use of method-based access
control, that is, access control where the access rights map exactly to HTTP
methods.  Several participants at the breakout felt this approach is a bad

This approach has the benefit that it maps exactly onto HTTP methods, which
have specific semantics.  Thus the exact outcome of setting a given access
control right is well understood by client and server.  A protocol which
adopts this approach would likely be more simple to specify and implement
than other alternatives.

The drawbacks to this approach become evident when examining resources which
are accessible via more than one protocol.  In this case, HTTP methods might
not map exactly onto operations available in other protocols.  Furthermore,
HTTP methods might not map exactly onto the access control rights provided
by the underlying repository.  Due to this, clients would need to perform a
trial-and-error style of interaction when trying to set access control
permissions, since presumably the underlying store would reject attempts to
set access control permissions which would result in security risks due to
unintended side-effects.  The other drawback to method-based access control
is the difficulty of making a user-interface for the protocol.  The majority
of users are not aware of the methods in the HTTP protocol, and hence would
be unable to set access control correctly using a user interface which
exposes the HTTP methods.

Most, but not all, participants at the breakout session felt that an
approach which defines "semantic" access rights (e.g., "modify", "read",
etc.) and then maps them into methods (e.g., "modify" --> PUT, POST,
PROPPATCH) is better than a method-only approach.


There was some discussion on whether it would be better to have a group
working just on Web and WebDAV access control, or have a group which tries
to address access control across several application layer protocols.  The
advantage to addressing access control for several protocols simultaneously
is that the cross-protocol access control issue would be substantively
addressed.  This is important, because many network resources are accessible
via multiple protocols, such as HTTP, FTP, news, mail, etc.  This would
benefit administrators of servers for these protocols.  It would also tend
to build critical mass for new application layer protocols to use this
access control protocol.

The disadvantage to having a cross-protocol access control effort is its
scope.  It may prove to be too complicated to address the access control
issues of several protocols simultaneously.

A cross-protocol access control effort would be expected to produce the
following deliverables:
 - a model document which is applicable across protocols
 - a set of transport-independent objects (possibly in XML) which are
exchanged to perform access control operations

*** End of Breakout Session ***
Received on Thursday, 31 December 1998 15:16:13 UTC

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