2007-10-29

Signing HTTP requests

When I first started thinking about signing HTTP responses, I assumed that signing HTTP requests was a fairly similar problem and that a single solution could deal with signing requests as well as responses.  But after thinking about it some more, I'm not so sure.

The first thing to bear in mind is that signing an HTTP request or response is not an end in itself, but merely a mechanism to achieve a particular goal.  The purpose of the proposal that I've been developing in this series of posts is to allow somebody that receives a representation of a resource to verify the integrity and origin of that representation; the mechanism for achieving this is signing HTTP responses.

The second thing to bear in mind is the advantages of this proposal over https.  Realistically, there's not much point to a proposal in this space unless it has compelling advantages over https. There are two advantages that I find compelling:

  • better performance: clients can verify the integrity of responses without negatively impacting HTTP caching, whereas requests and responses that go over https cannot be cached by proxies;
  • persistent non-repudiation: by this I mean a client that verifies the integrity and origin of a resource can easily persist metadata that makes it possible to subsequently prove what was verified to a third party.

One key factor that allows these advantages is that the proposal does not provide confidentiality.

As compared to other approaches to signing messages (such as S/MIME), the key advantage is that the signature will be automatically ignored by clients that don't understand it, just by virtue of normal HTTP extensibility rules.

If we turn to signing HTTP requests, or more specifically HTTP GET requests, none of the above considerations apply.

  • The goal of signing an HTTP GET request is typically to allow the server to restrict access to resources.
  • If you're really serious about restricting access to resources, and you want to protect against malicious proxies, then you will want to protect the confidentiality of the response; if the request includes a signature that says x authorizes y to access resource r at time t, then the representation of r in the response ought to be encrypted using y's public key.
  • Furthermore, if a server is restricting access to resources, then the signature on the request can't be optional, so the advantage over other message signing approaches such as S/MIME disappears.
  • Adding signatures to HTTP GET requests is inherently going to inhibit caching. A cached response to a request signed by x for resource r cannot in general be used to respond to a request signed by y for resource r.
  • Neither of the compelling advantages (better performance, and persistent non-repudiation) which I mentioned above applies any longer.

On the other hand, if we consider signing HTTP PUT (and possibly POST) requests, then there seems to be more commonality.  Signing an HTTP PUT request serves the goal of allowing the server to verify the integrity and origin of the representation of a resource transferred from the client.  Although I don't think there will be a significant performance advantage over https, persistent non-repudiation could be useful.

I think my conclusion is that it's better to think of the proposal not as a proposal for signing HTTP responses, but as a proposal for allowing verification of the origin and integrity of transfers of representations of resources. When considered in this light, signing of HTTP GET requests doesn't really fit in.

By the way, I'm not saying HTTP request signing isn't a useful technique. For example, OAuth is using it to solve an important problem: allowing users to grant applications limited access to private resources. But I think that's a very different problem from the problem that I'm trying to solve.

2 comments:

James Snell said...

Agreed. We are essentially signing the entity body and it's context; We are not signing the request or the response per se.

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