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.