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11.10. Security in Real Life

The problems of security are complex and severe enough that those who know about it reasonably say that people who do not understand it should not mess with it. This is the position of one of us (BL). The other (PL) sees things more from the point of view of the ordinary web master who wants to get his wares before the public. Security of the web site is merely one of many problems that have to be solved.

It is rather as if you had to take a PhD in combustion technology before you could safely buy and operate a motor car. The motor industry was like that around 1900 — it has moved on since then.

In earlier editions we rather cravenly ducked the practical questions, referring the reader to other authorities. However, we feel now that things have settled down enough that a section on what the professionals call "cookbook security" would be helpful. We would not suggest that you read this and then set up an online bank. However, if your security concerns are simply to keep casual hackers and possible business rivals out of the back room, then this may well be good enough.

Most of us need a good lock on the front door, and over the years we have learned how to choose and fit such a lock. Sadly this level of awareness has not yet developed on the Web. In this section we deal with a good, ordinary door lock — the reactive letter box is left to a later stage.

11.10.1. Cookbook Security

The first problem in security is to know with whom you are dealing. The client's concerns about the site's identity ("Am I sending my money to the real MegaBank or a crew of clowns in Bogota?") should be settled by a server certificate as described earlier.

You, as the webmaster, may well want to be sure that the person who logs on as one of your valued clients really is that person and not a cunning clown.

Without any extra effort, SSL encrypts both your data and your Basic Authentication passwords (see Chapter 5) as they travel over the Web. This is a big step forward in security. Bad Guys trying to snoop on our traffic should be somewhat discouraged. But we rely on a password to prove that it isn't a Bad Guy at the client end. We can improve on that with Client Certificates.

Although the technology exists to verify that the correct human body is at the console — by reading fingerprints or retina patterns, etc. — none of this kit is cheap enough (or, one suspects, reliable enough) to be in large-scale use. Besides, biometrics have two major flaws: they can't be revoked, and they encourage Bad Guys to remove parts of your body.[46] They are also not that reliable. You can use Jell-O to grab fingerprints from biosensors, offer them up again, and then eat the evidence as you stroll through the door. Or iris scanners might be fooled by holding up a laptop displaying a movie of the authorized eye.

[46]This is why Ben, only half-jokingly, calls biometrics "amputationware."

What can be done is to make sure that the client's machine has on it (either in software or, preferably, in some sort of hardware gizmo) the proper client certificate and that the person at the keyboard knows the appropriate passphrase.

To demonstrate how this works, we need to go through the following steps.

11.10.2. Demo Client Certificate

To begin with, we have to get ourselves (so we can pretend to be a verified client) a client certificate. You can often find a button on your browser that will manage the process for you, or there are two obvious independent sources: Thawte (http://www.thawte.com) and Verisign (http://www.verisign.com). Thawte calls them "Personal Certificates" and Verisign "Personal Digital IDs." Since the Verisign version costs $14.95 a year and the Thawte one was free, we chose the latter.

The process is well explained on the Thawte web site, so we will not reproduce it here. However, a snag appeared. The first thing to do is to establish a client account. You have to give your name, address, email address, etc. and some sort of ID number — a driving licence, passport number, national insurance number, etc. No attempt is made to verify any of this, and then you choose a password.

So far so good. I (PL) had forgotten that a year or two ago I had opened an account with Thawte for some other reason. I didn't do anything with it except to forget the password.

Many sites will email you your password providing that the name and email address you give match their records. Quite properly, Thawte will not do this. They have a procedure for retelling you your password, but is a real hassle for everyone concerned. To save trouble and embarrassment, I decided to invent a new e-personality, "K. D. Price,"[47] at http://www.hotmail.com, and to open a new account at Thawte in his name. You are asked to specify your browser from the following:

[47]Many years ago it was tax efficient in the U.K. for a writer to collect his earnings through a limited company. PL's was "K D Price Ltd." It was known politely as "Ken Price Ltd," but the initials really stood for "Knock Down Price." Ha!

Netscape Communicator or Messenger
Microsoft Internet Explorer, Outlook and Outlook Express
Lotus Notes R5
OperaSoftware Browser
C2Net SafePassage Web Proxy

to download the self-installing X509 certificate. (I accidentally asked for a Netscape certificate using MSIE, and the Thawte site sensibly complained.) The process takes you through quite a lot of "Click OK unless you know what you are doing" messages. People who think they know what they are doing can doubtless find hours of amusement here. In the end the fun stops without any indication of what happens next, but you should find a message in your mailbox with the URL where the certificate can be retrieved. When we went there, the certificate installed itself. Finally, you are told that you can see your new acquisition:

 To view the certificate in MSIE 4, select View->Internet Options->Content and then 
press the button for "Personal" certificates. To view the certificate in MSIE 5, 
select Tools->Internet Options->Content and then press the button for "Certificates".

11.10.3. Get the CA Certificate

The "Client Certificate" we have just acquired only has value if it is issued by some responsible and respectable party. To prove that this is so, we need a CA certificate establishing that Thawte was the party in question. Since this is important, you might think that the process would be easy, but for some bashful reason both Thawte and Verisign make their CA certificates pretty hard to find. From the home page at http://www.thawte.com you click on ResourceCentre.In Developer's Corner you find some text with a link to roottrustmap.When you go there you find a table of various roots. The one we need is PersonalFreemail.When you click on it, you get to download a file called persfree.crt.

We downloaded it to /usr/www/APACHE3/ca_cert — well above the Apache root. We added the line:

SSLCACertificateFile /usr/www/APACHE3/ca_cert/persfree.crt

Apache loaded, but the error_log had the line:

[<date>][error] mod_ssl: Init: (sales.butterthlies.com:443) Unable to configure 
verify locations for client authentication

which suggested that everything was not well. The problem is that the Thawte certificate is in what is known (somewhat misleadingly) as DER format, whereas it needs to be in what is known (even more misleadingly) as PEM format. The former is just a straight binary dump; the latter base64 encoded with some wrapping. To convert from one to the other:

openssl x509 -in persfree.crt -inform DER -out persfree2.crt

This time, when we started Apache (having altered the Config file to refer to persfree2.crt), the error_log had a notation saying: "...mod_ssl/3.0a0 OpenSSL/0.9.6b configured..." — which was good. However, when we tried to browse to sales.butterthlies.com,the enterprise failed and we found a message in .../logs/error_log:

...[error] mod_ssl: Certificate Verification: Certificate Chain too long chain has 2 
cerificates, but maximum allowed are only 1)

The problem was simply fixed by adding a line at the top of the Config file:

SSLVerifyDepth 2
This now worked and we had a reasonably secure site. The final Config file was:
User webserv
Group webserv

LogLevel notice
LogFormat "%h %l %t \"%r\" %s %b %a %{user-agent}i %U" sidney

#SSLCacheServerPort 1234
#SSLCacheServerPath /usr/src/apache/apache_1.3.19/src/modules/ssl/gcache
SSLSessionCache dbm:/usr/src/apache/apache_1.3.19/src/modules/ssl/gcache
SSLCertificateFile /usr/src/apache/apache_1.3.19/SSLconf/conf/new1.cert.cert
SSLCertificateKeyFile /usr/src/apache/apache_1.3.19/SSLconf/conf/privkey.pem
SSLCACertificateFile /usr/www/APACHE3/ca_cert/persfree2.crt
SSLVerifyDepth	 2
SSLVerifyClient require
SSLSessionCacheTimeout 3600


SSLEngine off
ServerName www.butterthlies.com
DocumentRoot /usr/www/APACHE3/site.virtual/htdocs/customers
ErrorLog /usr/www/APACHE3/site.ssl/apache_2/logs/error_log
CustomLog /usr/www/APACHE3/site.ssl/apache_2/logs/butterthlies_log sidney

SSLEngine on
ServerName sales.butterthlies.com

DocumentRoot /usr/www/APACHE3/site.virtual/htdocs/salesmen
ErrorLog /usr/www/APACHE3/site.ssl/apache_2/logs/error_log
CustomLog /usr/www/APACHE3/site.ssl/apache_2/logs/butterthlies_log sidney

<Directory /usr/www/APACHE3/site.virtual/htdocs/salesmen>
AuthType Basic
AuthName darkness
AuthUserFile /usr/www/APACHE3/ok_users/sales
AuthGroupFile /usr/www/APACHE3/ok_users/groups
Require group cleaners

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