Archive for October, 2009

The Fate of the Three Little Pigs and Little Red Riding Hood

Friday, October 23rd, 2009 by hartmans

One of the more annoying aspects to deploying Kerberos and GSS-API is making sure that clients have the correct name for the server they’re talking to. CIFS, the Windows file-sharing protocol, provided the identity of the server to the client. Windows used this to make a few things easier with NTLM but does not use this information with Kerberos.

I keep finding myself in conversations where someone has the bright idea of making this problem easier by generalizing this mechanism and having the server tell the client its identity. The client can then authenticate to that identity. There’s definitely an implementation advantage: you remove all the complexity of name mapping. The problem of course is that it matters what server the client is talking to; the client actually needs to make a decision about how much to trust the server. Authentication to the bad guy is just as bad as the bad guy being able to subvirt your authentication to the good guy.

I was talking recently to another implementor who has similar experience with their customers. Frustrated, I was looking for an analogy simple enough that people could understand the mistake here. I was running through nursery rhymes and other childrens’ tales in may head until I came to the Three Little Pigs. It’s perfect!
The pigs do not want the results of the “Let me in,” service from the big bad wolf. There’s no way that the situation could be made better by more authentication. Asking the wolf for his PIV Card (when have you met a big bad wolf who was not a federal contractor) will not help the pigs decide to let the wolf in. Because the pigs think to consider who they are getting a service from, they decide not to trust it. Of course, physical security is something that first two pigs should have worked on. However even their brother would not have been safe if he’d taken an approach similar to the one proposed for GSS-API of asking the bad guy what name to trust before authenticating to see if the bad guy in fact has that name.

There may be things we can do to make name mapping easier. However we cannot provide security without making a trust decision about who we talk to, and whenever we talk about “who” and trust together, we must consider the security of the mapping.

Of course, as Little Red Riding Hood could tell you, sometimes it is all about authentication. Sadly, her grandmother was unable to get better than level of assurance 1 for her identity as “Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother,” and the wolf was able to claim that identify for himself.