Linkage in “redirect” protocols like SAML

Moving on from certificates in our examination of identity technology and linkability, we'll look next at the redirection protocols – SAML, WS-Federation and OpenID.  These work as shown in the following diagram.  Let's take SAML as our example. 

In step 1, the user goes to a relying party and requests a resource using an http “GET”.  Assuming the relying party wants proof of identity, it returns 2), an http “redirect” that contains a “Location” header.  This header will necessarily include the URL of the identity provider (IP), and a bunch of goop in the URL query string that encodes the SAML request.    

For example, the redirect might look something like this:

HTTP/1.1 302 Object Moved
Date: 21 Jan 2004 07:00:49 GMT
Content-Type: text/html; charset=iso-8859-1

The user's browser receives the redirect and then behaves as a good browser should, doing the GET at the URL represented by the Location header, as shown in 3). 

The question of how the relying party knows which identity provider URL to use is open ended.  In a portal scenario, the address might be hard wired, pointing to the portal's identity provider.  Or in OpenID, the user manually enters information that can be used to figure out the URL of the identity provider (see the associated dangers).

The next question is, “How does the identity provider return the response to the relying party?”  As you might guess, the same redirection mechanism is used again in 4), but this time the identity provider fills out the Location header with the URL of the relying party, and the goop is the identity information required by the RP.  As shown in 5), the browser responds to this redirection information by obediently posting back to the relying party.

Note that all of this can occur without the user being aware that anything has happened or having to take any action.  For example, the user might have a cookie that identifies her to her identity provider.  Then if she is sent through steps 2) to 4), she will likely see nothing but a little flicker in her status bar as different addresses flash by.  (This is why I often compare redirection to a world where, when you enter a store to buy something, the sales clerk reaches into your pocket, pulls out your wallet and debits your credit card without you knowing what is going on — trust us…)

Since the identity provider is tasked with telling the browser where to send the response, it MUST know what relying party you are visiting.  Because it fabricates the returned identity token, it MUST know all the contents of that token.

So, returning to the axes for linkability that we set up in Evolving Technology for Better Privacy, we see that from an identity point of view, the identity provider “sees all” – without the requirement for any collusion.  Knowing each other's identity, the relying party and the identity provider can, in the absence of appropriate policy and suitable auditing, exchange any information they want, either through the redirection channel, or through a “back channel” that dispenses with the user and her browser altogether. 

In fact all versions of SAML include an “artifact” binding intended to facilitate this.  The intention of this mechanism is that only a “handle” need be exchanged through the browser redirection channel, with the assumption that the IP and RP can then hook up and use the handle to “collaborate” about the user without her participation.

In considering the use cases for which SAML was designed, it is important to remember that redirection was not originally designed to put the “user at the center”, but rather was “intended for cases in which the SAML requester and responder need to communicate using an HTTP user agent… for example, if the communicating parties do not share a direct path of communication.”  In other words, an IP/RP collaboration use case.

As Paul Masden reminded us in a recent comment, SAML 2.0 introduced a new element called RelayState that provides another means for synchronizing or exchanging information between the identity provider and the relying party; again, this demonstrates the great amount of trust a user must place in a SAML identity provider.

There are other SAML bindings that vary slightly from the redirect binding described above (for example, there is an HTTP POST binding that gets around the payload size limitations involved with the redirected GET, as Pat Paterson has pointed out).  But nothing changes in terms of the big picture.  In general, we can say that the redirection protocols promote much greater visibility of the IP on the RPs than was the case with X.509. 

I certainly do not see this as all bad.  It can be useful in many cases – for example when you would like your financial institution to verify the identity of a commercial site before you release funds to it.  But the important point is this:  the protocol pattern is only appropriate for a certain set of use cases, reminding us why we need to move towards a multi-technology metasystem. 

It is possible to use the same SAML payloads in more privacy-protecting ways by using a different wire protocol and putting more intelligence and control on the client.  This is the case for CardSpace in non-auditing mode, and Conor Cahor points out that SAML's Enhanced Client or Proxy (ECP) Profile has similar goals.  Privacy is one of the important reasons why evolving towards an “active client” has advantages.

You might ask why, given the greater visibility of IP on RP, I didn't put the redirection protocols at the extreme left of my identity technology privacy spectrum.  The reason is that the probability of RP/RP collusion CAN be greatly reduced when compared to X.509 certificates, as I will show next.

Published by

Kim Cameron

Work on identity.

4 thoughts on “Linkage in “redirect” protocols like SAML”

  1. Pat, you have more experience than me with the SAML protocol, but the SAML 2.0 spec says (line 826):

    Eventually the responder SHOULD return a SAML response to the user agent to be returned to the SAML requester. The SAML response is returned in the same fashion as described for the SAMLrequest in step 2

    So my description seems accurate for the redirect binding.

    There is a separate POST binding,in which both step 2) and 4) are posts…

    Further one can legally pick and choose between various combinations of redirect, POST and artifact bindings, such that one protocol leg is in one binding, while a second leg is in a different binding.

    Mulling this over I imagine you are pointing out that in reality, the composition of bindings you describe is more useful and more often employed than is the pure redirect binding.

    I'll try to deepen the piece by making it clear that different bindings are possible, without changing the big picture.

  2. While what Pat points out is correct, I don't see it a being that important in the context of this discussion.

    What is being discussed here is which parties know what and what can they figure out (and with my addition, how much effort will it take them to figure it out) What Kim is trying to do here is get a better technical understanding of all that knowing and figuring. I don't see that bandwidth considerations are that relevant in such discussions.

    They might be relevant in the following sense. Whatever “tricks” you do to save bandwidth or satisfy constraints on message size might provide more information that could be used to figure out more things. But that's not the same thing as saying that they have a direct effect on linkability. If they do, then further analysis is worthwhile, but the purpose behind their introduction needs to be understood too.

  3. Kim: The reference in line 826 of the SAML 2.0 Bindings spec is part of a discussion of the POST binding – step 2 is also a POST. The SAML 2.0 Web Browser SSO Profile explicitly states: “The HTTP Redirect binding MUST NOT be used [to deliver a ], as the response will typically exceed the URL length permitted by most user agents.” – line 424 of SAML 2.0 Profiles spec. Oh, and my name has two ‘t's and my blog URL is – WP seems to have invented a URL for me.

    Eric:Yes, I agree – it doesn't change the substance of the discussion, but the proofreader in me can't let an error like that go unchallenged 🙂

Comments are closed.