(Theory) Authorization Capabilities

A secure authorization system is a vital part of a Confidential Storage solution to protected data from misuse, such as data manipulation or data theft. This is true for data storage and data transfer as data must be processed confidentially and may only reach those who have the respective right to access the data.

ZCap-LD uses the object capability model to grant and express authority. Its main function is to securely share and manage data. We opted for a capability-based system (instead of a traditional access control list based system).

To understand capability-based systems it is useful to start with the concept of capabilities:

Basically, a capability consists of a token or a key. The owner uses it to verify that he/she has permission to access an entity or object. It is implemented as a data structure consisting of the access rights and a unique identifier:

This identifier points to a specific object. The access rights declare which operations may be performed. For example, the access rights define a read-only access on a file, or a write access on a memory segment.

In a capability-based system, each user has access to a capability list. With these capabilities the system is able to check if the user is allowed to interact with the object.

A capability protects the object from unauthorized access, but the whole concept is useless if a capability is not protected from manipulation. If a program could change the access list and the identifier of a capability at any time, the program would be able to force access to any object. Therefore, a capability-based system is usually built in such a way that direct modifications by a program are not allowed. So the capability list can only be modified by the operating system or the hardware. What programs can do is to call operating system or hardware operations. That means programs can get new capabilities, delete capabilities or change the rights in a capability.

The goal of an authorization system is to protect confidential data. Conventional systems only partially perform this important task. Capabilities can be used to prevent processes from gaining access to data for which they do not have permission. This means a process is allowed to access capabilities which are necessary to only access the resources that the process needs. This ensures that no confidential data is revealed without having the right permissions to access this data.

The concept of capabilities can be well combined with sandboxing (i.e. the creation of an isolated test environment in which it is safe to execute suspicious URLs or files). Capabilities can be used to grant access to all data associated with the program. That means capabilities are used to sandbox every process in the program and giving it access to all associated data. This prevents the program from gaining access to sensitive data located on the other side (i.e. on the user’s desktop).

Last updated