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Http Authentication – Introduction

Hello friends, we are in discussion about Http and various important aspects related to the same. While discussing this, we cannot ignore vary important aspect of discussion i.e. Http Authentication & Access control.

We live in world of internet where each and every information is available on the network and can be accessed by anyone. With that said, there is some confidential\proprietary information which is available and should be accessed only by authorized people. To access authorized information, we need to prove our identity and we should have access to those resources which we want.

In internet world this is accomplished via Http Authentication\Authorization.

Http also has its own authentication framework to authenticate user and provide authorized information.

HTTP provides a general framework for access control and authentication. The most common HTTP authentication is based on “Basic” schema. This page shows an introduction to HTTP framework for authentication and shows what all type of schemas are there.

HTTP Authentication Framework

RFC 7235 defines the HTTP authentication framework which can be used by a server to challenge a client request and then a client provides authentication information.

The challenge and response flow works like this:

  • Client requests a resource from server.
  • The server responds to a client with a 401(Unauthorized) response status and provides information on how to authorize with a WWW-Authenticate response header containing at least one challenge.
  • A client that wants to authenticate itself with a server, will provide its username and password.
  • Server will match credentials and then will provide resource if authentication succeeded.

Below is the flow:

Http Authentication

Proxy Authentication

The same challenge and response mechanism can be used for proxy authentication. Suppose, there is an intermediate proxy that requires authentication. As both resource authentication and proxy authentication can coexist, a different set of headers and status codes are needed.

In the case of proxies, the challenging status code is 407 (Proxy Authentication Required), the Proxy-Authenticate response header contains at least one challenge applicable to the proxy, and the Proxy-Authorization request header is used for providing the credentials to the proxy server.

Access forbidden

If a (proxy) server receives valid credentials that are not adequate to gain access for a given resource, the server should respond with the 403 Forbidden status code. 

Authentication of cross-origin images

A potential security hole that has recently been fixed by browsers is authentication of cross-site images.

Previously an image from different origin was able to show authentication dialog box to user and user has to put credentials. This way one can steal your data as credential information could be in Base64 encoded and can be cracked easily.

As part of security fix, all image resources loaded from different origins to the current document are no longer able to trigger HTTP authentication dialog, preventing user credentials being stolen if attackers were able to embed an arbitrary image into a third-party page. 

WWW-Authenticate and Proxy-Authenticate headers

The WWW-Authenticate and Proxy-Authenticate response headers define the authentication method that should be used to gain access to a resource. They need to specify which authentication scheme is used, so that the client that wishes to authorize knows how to provide the credentials. The syntax for these headers is the following:

WWW-Authenticate: <type> realm=<realm>

Proxy-Authenticate: <type> realm=<realm>

Here, <type> is the authentication scheme (“Basic” is the most common scheme and introduced below). The realm is used to describe the protected area or to indicate the scope of protection. This could be a message like “Access to the staging site” or similar, so that the user knows to which space they are trying to get access to.

Authorization and Proxy-Authorization headers

The Authorization and Proxy-Authorization request headers contain the credentials to authenticate a user agent with a (proxy) server. Here, the type is needed again followed by the credentials, which can be encoded or encrypted depending on which authentication scheme is used.

Authorization: <type> <credentials>

Proxy-Authorization: <type> <credentials>

Authentication schemes

The general HTTP authentication framework is used by several authentication schemes. Schemes can differ in security strength and in their availability in client or server software.

The most common authentication scheme is the “Basic” authentication scheme which is introduced in more details below. IANA maintains a list of authentication schemes, but there are other schemes offered by host services, such as Amazon AWS.

Common authentication schemes include:

Authentication Scheme

Description

Anonymous

An anonymous request does not contain any authentication information. This is equivalent to granting everyone access to the resource.

Basic

Basic authentication sends a Base64-encoded string that contains a user name and password for the client. Base64 is not a form of encryption and should be considered the same as sending the user name and password in clear text. If a resource needs to be protected, strongly consider using an authentication scheme other than basic authentication.

Digest

Digest authentication is a challenge-response scheme that is intended to replace Basic authentication. The server sends a string of random data called a nonce to the client as a challenge. The client responds with a hash that includes the user name, password, and nonce, among additional information. The complexity this exchange introduces and the data hashing make it more difficult to steal and reuse the user’s credentials with this authentication scheme.

Digest authentication requires the use of Windows domain accounts. The digest realm is the Windows domain name. Therefore, you cannot use a server running on an operating system that does not support Windows domains, such as Windows XP Home Edition, with Digest authentication. Conversely, when the client runs on an operating system that does not support Windows domains, a domain account must be explicitly specified during the authentication.

NTLM

NT LAN Manager (NTLM) authentication is a challenge-response scheme that is a securer variation of Digest authentication. NTLM uses Windows credentials to transform the challenge data instead of the unencoded user name and password. NTLM authentication requires multiple exchanges between the client and server. The server and any intervening proxies must support persistent connections to successfully complete the authentication.

Kerberos

This authentication service was developed at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It involves the symmetric key encryption practice and a KDC (Key distribution center). It verifies the identities of communication parties on an unprotected network. This is achieved without depending on authentication mechanism by the host OS, without necessitating physical security of the host and without building trust on host address.

Negotiate

Negotiate authentication automatically selects between the Kerberos protocol and NTLM authentication, depending on availability. The Kerberos protocol is used if it is available; otherwise, NTLM is tried. Kerberos authentication significantly improves upon NTLM. Kerberos authentication is both faster than NTLM and allows the use of mutual authentication and delegation of credentials to remote machines.

Windows Live ID

The underlying Windows HTTP service includes authentication using federated protocols. However, the standard HTTP transports in WCF do not support the use of federated authentication schemes, such as Microsoft Windows Live ID. Support for this feature is currently available through the use of message security.

 

This is only an introduction about Http Authentication framework and schemas. In upcoming articles we’ll discuss each of these schemas in detail.

Deepak Gera

Hi, I am Deepak Gera, Consultant, Founder and Chief Editor for www.lazyheap.com. Working as Technical Architect and having diversification in Industry types, Tools, Techs.

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