The Importance of Elevating Privilege

The biggest detractor to Single Sign On is the same thing that makes it so appealing – you only need to prove your identity once. This scares the hell out of some people because if you can compromise a users session in one application it's possible to affect other applications. Congratulations: checking your Facebook profile just caused your online store to delete all it's orders. Let's break that attack down a little.

  • You just signed into Facebook and checked your [insert something to check here] from some friend. That contained a link to something malicious.
  • You click the link, and it opens a page that contains an iframe. The iframe points to a URL for your administration portal of the online store with a couple parameters in the query string telling the store to delete all the incoming orders.
  • At this point you don't have a session with the administration portal and in a pre-SSO world it would redirect you to a login page. This would stop most attacks because either a) the iframe is too small to show the page, or b) (hopefully) the user is smart enough to realize that a link from a friend on Facebook shouldn't redirect you to your online store's administration portal. In a post-SSO world, the portal would redirect you to the STS of choice and that STS already has you signed in (imagine what else could happen in this situation if you were using Facebook as your identity provider).
  • So you've signed into the STS already, and it doesn't prompt for credentials. It redirects you to the administration page you were originally redirected away from, but this time with a session. The page is pulled up, the query string parameters are parsed, and the orders are deleted.

There are certainly ways to stop this as part of this is a bit trivial. For instance you could pop up an Ok/Cancel dialog asking "are you sure you want to delete these?", but for the sake of discussion lets think of this at a high level.

The biggest problem with this scenario is that deleting orders doesn't require anything more than being signed in. By default you had the highest privileges available.

This problem is similar to the problem many users of Windows XP had. They were, by default, running with administrative privileges. This lead to a bunch of problems because any application running could do whatever it pleased on the system. Malware was rampant, and worse, users were just doing all around stupid things because they didn't know what they were doing but they had the permissions necessary to do it.

The solution to that problem is to give users non-administrative privileges by default, and when something required higher privileges you have to re-authenticate and temporarily run with the higher privileges. The key here is that you are running temporarily with higher privileges. However, security lost the argument and Microsoft caved while developing Windows Vista creating User Account Control (UAC). By default a user is an administrator, but they don't have administrative privileges. Their user token is a stripped down administrator token. You only have non-administrative privileges. In order to take full advantage of the administrator token, a user has to elevate and request the full token temporarily. This is a stop-gap solution though because it's theoretically possible to circumvent UAC because the administrative token exists. It also doesn't require you to re-authenticate – you just have to approve the elevation.

As more and more things are moving to the web it's important that we don't lose control over privileges. It's still very important that you don't have administrative privileges by default because, frankly, you probably don't need them all the time.

Some web applications are requiring elevation. For instance consider online banking sites. When I sign in I have a default set of privileges. I can view my accounts and transfer money between my accounts. Anything else requires that I re-authenticate myself by entering a private pin. So for instance I cannot transfer money to an account that doesn't belong to me without proving that it really is me making the transfer.

There are a couple ways you can design a web application that requires privilege elevation. Lets take a look at how to do it with Claims Based Authentication and WIF.

First off, lets look at the protocol. Out of the box WIF supports the WS-Federation protocol. The passive version of the protocol supports a query parameter of wauth. This parameter defines how authentication should happen. The values for it are mostly specific to each STS however there are a few well-defined values that the SAML protocol specifies. These values are passed to the STS to tell it to authenticate using a particular method. Here are some most often used:

Authentication Type/Credential Wauth Value
Password urn:oasis:names:tc:SAML:1.0:am:password
Kerberos urn:ietf:rfc:1510
TLS urn:ietf:rfc:2246
PKI/X509 urn:oasis:names:tc:SAML:1.0:am:X509-PKI
Default urn:oasis:names:tc:SAML:1.0:am:unspecified

When you pass one of these values to the STS during the signin request, the STS should then request that particular type of credential. the wauth parameter supports arbitrary values so you can use whatever you like. So therefore we can create a value that tells the STS that we want to re-authenticate because of an elevation request.

All you have to do is redirect to the STS with the wauth parameter:


Once the user has re-authenticated you need to tell the relying party some how. This is where the Authentication Method claim comes in handy:

Just add the claim to the output identity:

protected override IClaimsIdentity GetOutputClaimsIdentity(IClaimsPrincipal principal, RequestSecurityToken request, Scope scope)
    IClaimsIdentity ident = principal.Identity as IClaimsIdentity;
    ident.Claims.Add(new Claim(ClaimTypes.AuthenticationMethod, "urn:super:secure:elevation:method"));
    // finish filling claims...
    return ident;

At that point the relying party can then check to see whether the method satisfies the request. You could write an extension method like:

public static bool IsElevated(this IClaimsPrincipal principal)
    return principal.Identity.AuthenticationType == "urn:super:secure:elevation:method";

And then have a bit of code to check:

var p = Thread.CurrentPrincipal as IClaimsPrincipal;
if (p != null && p.IsElevated())

This satisfies half the requirements for elevating privilege. We need to make it so the user is only elevated for a short period of time. We can do this in an event handler after the token is received by the RP.  In Global.asax we could do something like:

void Application_Start(object sender, EventArgs e)
        += new EventHandler<SessionSecurityTokenReceivedEventArgs>
(SessionAuthenticationModule_SessionSecurityTokenReceived); } void SessionAuthenticationModule_SessionSecurityTokenReceived(object sender,
SessionSecurityTokenReceivedEventArgs e) { if (e.SessionToken.ClaimsPrincipal.IsElevated()) { SessionSecurityToken token
= new SessionSecurityToken(e.SessionToken.ClaimsPrincipal, e.SessionToken.Context,
e.SessionToken.ValidFrom, e.SessionToken.ValidFrom.AddMinutes(15)); e.SessionToken = token; } }

This will check to see if the incoming token has been elevated, and if it has, set the lifetime of the token to 15 minutes.

There are other places where this could occur like within the STS itself, however this value may need to be independent of the STS.

As I said earlier, as more and more things are moving to the web it's important that we don't lose control of privileges. By requiring certain types of authentication in our relying parties, we can easily support elevation by requiring the STS to re-authenticate.

What makes Claims Based Authentication Secure?

Update: I should have mentioned this when I first posted, but some of these thoughts are the result of me reading Programming Windows Identity Foundation.  While I hope I haven’t copied the ideas outright, I believe the interpretation is unique-ish. Smile

One of the main reasons we as developers shy away from new technologies is because we are afraid of it.  As we learned in elementary school, the reason we are afraid usually boils down to not having enough information about the topic.  I’ve found this especially true with anything security related.  So, lets think about something for a minute.

I’m not entirely sure how valid a method this is for measure, but I like to think that as developers we measure our understanding of something by how much we abstract away the problems it creates.  Now let me ask you this question:

How much of an abstraction layer do we create for identity?

Arguably very little because in most cases we half-ass it.

I say this knowing full well I’m extremely guilty of it.  Sure, I’d create a User class and populate with application specific data, but to populate the object I would call Active Directory or SQL directly.  That created a tightly coupled dependency between the application and the user store.  That works perfectly up until you need to migrate those users in a SQL database to Active Directory.  Oops.

So why do we do this?

My reason for doing this is pretty simple.  I didn’t know any better.  The reason I didn’t know better was also pretty simple.  Of the available options to abstract away the identity I didn’t understand how the technology worked, or more likely, I didn’t trust it.  Claims based authentication is a perfect example of this.  I thought to myself when I first came across this: “are you nuts?  You want me to hand over authentication to someone else and then I have to trust them that what they give me is valid?  I don’t think so.”

Well, yes actually.

Authentication, identification, and authorization are simply processes in the grand scheme of an application lifecycle.  They are privileged, but that just means we need to be careful about it.  Fear, as it turns out, is the number one reason why we don’t abstract this part out.*

With that, I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to take a look at a few of the reasons why Claims based authentication is reasonably secure.  I would also like to take this time to compare some of these reasons to why our current methods of user authentication are usually done wrong.


First and foremost we trust the source.  Obviously a bank isn’t going to accept a handwritten piece of paper with my name on it as proof that I am me.  It stands to reason that you aren’t going to accept an identity from some random 3rd party provider for important proof of identity.

Encryption + SSL

The connection between RP and STS is over SSL.  Therefore no man in the middle attacks.  Then you encrypt the token.  Much like the SSL connection, the STS encrypts the payload with the RP’s public key, which only the RP can decrypt with its private key.  If you don’t use SSL anyone eavesdropping on the connection still can’t read the payload.  Also, the STS usually keeps a local copy of the certificate for token encryption.

How many of us encrypt our SQL connections when verifying  the user’s password?  How many of us use secured LDAP queries to Active Directory?  How many of us encrypt our web services?  I usually forget to.

Audience whitelist

Most commercial STS applications require that each request come from an approved Relying Party.  Moreover, most of those applications require that the endpoint that it responds to also be on an approved list.  You could probably fake it through DNS poisoning, but the certificates used for encryption and SSL would prevent you from doing anything meaningful since you couldn’t decrypt the token.

Do we verify the identity of the application requesting information from the SQL database?  Not usually the application.  However, we could do it via Kerberos impersonation.  E.g. lock down the specific data to the currently logged in/impersonated user.

Expiration and Duplication Prevention

All tokens have authentication timestamps.  They also normally have expiration timestamps.  Therefore they have a window of time that defines how long they are valid.  It is up to the application accepting the token to make sure the window is still acceptable, but it is still an opportunity for verification.  This also gives us the opportunity to prevent replay attacks.  All we have to do is keep track of all incoming tokens within the valid time window and see if the tokens repeat.  If so, we reject them.

There isn’t much we can do in a traditional setting to prevent this from happening.  If someone eavesdrops on the connection and grabs the username/password between the browser and your application, game over.  They don’t need to spoof anything.  They have the credentials.  SSL can fix this problem pretty easily though.


Once the token has been created by the STS, it will be signed by the STS’s private key.  If the token is modified in any way the signature wont match.  Since it is being signed by the private key of the STS, only the STS can resign it, however anyone can verify the signature through the STS’s public key.  And since it’s a certificate for the STS, we can use it as strong proof that the STS is who they say they are.  For a good primer on public key/private key stuff check out Wikipedia.

It's pretty tricky to modify payloads between SQL and an application, but it is certainly possible.  Since we don’t usually encrypt the connections (I am guilty of this daily – It’s something I need to work on Winking smile), intercepting packets and modifying them on the fly is possible.  There isn’t really a way to verify if the payload has been tampered with.

Sure, there is a level of trust between the data source and the application if they are both within the same datacenter, but what if it’s being hosted offsite by a 3rd party?  There is always going to be a situation where integrity can become an issue.  The question at that point then is: how much do you trust the source, as well as the connection to the source?

Authentication Level

Finally, if we are willing to accept that each item above increases the security and validity of the identity, there is really only one thing left to make sure is acceptable.  How was the user authenticated?  Username/password, Kerberos, smart card/certificates, etc.  If we aren’t happy with how they were authenticated, we don’t accept the token.

So now that we have a pretty strong basis for what makes the tokens containing claims as well as the relationship between the RP’s and STS’s secure, we don’t really need to fear the Claims model.

Now we just need to figure out how to replace our old code with the identity abstraction. Smile

* Strictly anecdotal evidence, mind you.

Converting Claims to Windows Tokens and User Impersonation

In a domain environment it is really useful to switch user contexts in a web application.  This could be if you are needing to log in with credentials that have elevated permissions (or vice-versa) or just needing to log in as another user.

It’s pretty easy to do this with Windows Identity Foundation and Claims Authentication.  When the WIF framework is installed, a service is installed (that is off by default) that can translate Claims to Windows Tokens.  This is called (not surprisingly) the Claims to Windows Token Service or (c2WTS).

Following the deploy-with-least-amount-of-attack-surface methodology, this service does not work out of the box.  You need to turn it on and enable which user’s are allowed to impersonate via token translation.  Now, this doesn’t mean which users can switch, it means which users running the process are allowed to switch.  E.g. the process running the IIS application pools local service/network service/local system/etc (preferably a named service user other than system users).

To allow users to do this go to C:\Program Files\Windows Identity Foundation\v3.5\c2wtshost.exe.config and add in the service users to <allowedCallers>:

      By default no callers are allowed to use the Windows Identity Foundation Claims To NT Token Service.
      Add the identities you wish to allow below.
    <!-- <add value="NT AUTHORITY\Network Service" /> -->
    <!-- <add value="NT AUTHORITY\Local Service" /> –>
    <!-- <add value="nt authority\system" /> –>
    <!-- <add value="NT AUTHORITY\Authenticated Users" /> -->

You should notice that by default, all users are not allowed.  Once you’ve done that you can start up the service.  It is called Claims to Windows Token Service in the Services MMC snap-in.

That takes care of the administrative side of things.  Lets write some code.  But first, some usings:

using System;
using System.Linq;
using System.Security.Principal;
using System.Threading;
using Microsoft.IdentityModel.Claims;
using Microsoft.IdentityModel.WindowsTokenService;

The next step is to actually generate the token.  From an architectural perspective, we want to use the UPN claims type as that’s what the service wants to see.  To get the claim, we do some simple LINQ:

IClaimsIdentity identity = (ClaimsIdentity)Thread.CurrentPrincipal.Identity;
string upn = identity.Claims.Where(c => c.ClaimType == ClaimTypes.Upn).First().Value;

if (String.IsNullOrEmpty(upn))
    throw new Exception("No UPN claim found");

Following that we do the impersonation:

WindowsIdentity windowsIdentity = S4UClient.UpnLogon(upn);

using (WindowsImpersonationContext ctxt = windowsIdentity.Impersonate())

    ctxt.Undo(); // redundant with using { } statement

To release the token we call the Undo() method, but if you are within a using { } statement the Undo() method is called when the object is disposed.

One thing to keep in mind though.  If you do not have permission to impersonate a user a System.ServiceModel.Security.SecurityAccessDeniedException will be thrown.

That’s all there is to it.

Implementation Details

In my opinion, these types of calls really shouldn’t be made all that often.  Realistically you need to take a look at how impersonation fits into the application and then go from there.  Impersonation is pretty weighty topic for discussion, and frankly, I’m not an expert.