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HTTP Digital Signature Algorithm

Draft 2015-18-B

A light-weight digital signature algorithm for cryptographic verification of HTTP requests and responses, secured RPC, and SSO.


This document specifies an experimental and simplified HTTP digital signature algorithm for requests and responses designed to protect against common attacks and provide the fundamental layer for authorized API access and account authentication/authorization.


This document describes a pre-exchanged public/private digital signature algorithm used to authenticate HTTP requests from known third parties, and for those third parties to authenticate the HTTP response returning from the server. Special attention has been paid to MITM attacks: mitigated through the use of end-to-end SSL/TLS channel encryption with verified certificates in addition to dedicated client-server signing key pairs.


Existing technologies exist which purport to increase security while individually handling authentication (OpenID), authorization (OAuth), or a mixture of the two (OAuth 2). The problem with these technologies is that of design-by-committee. The major influencers of these standards has been enterprise, which generally means they're severely over-engineered, hideously difficult to configure securely, and exhibit bugs which result in multiple incompatible independent implementations, most notably with OAuth 2. Additionally, because of the taint of enterprise added to those committees, the standards tend to be kitchen sinks of various proposals: OAuth 2 includes support for SASL.

The problems with these "entrenched" standards include the fact that one of the core authors of OAuth 2 left the project and had his name stripped from all documents on the way out. He has a good presentation on some of the failures of the protocol.

This proposal covers the primary use cases (starting with authenticated API/RPC calls) of these more complicated protocols, while excluding features that have been better implemented in other standards, such as OAuth 1's use of custom data encryption (in addition to the typical use of SSL/TLS) and without the complexity that results in OAuth 2's 70+ page security analysis whitepaper and multiple (incompatible) hot fix implementations, such as Facebook's, Google's, Yahoo!'s, and Twitter's.

JSON Web Tokens (JWT) suffer from some pretty extreme issues and is similarly over-engineered, requiring expansive trees of logic to be compatible, allowing a signature algorithm of "none", giving control over the choice of algorithm to the attacker, sports an extensive list of algorithms, and requires some truly silly Base64-encoded JSON blobs.

SAML is an insanely complex XML and X.509-based protocol. This protocol is effectively a restricted subset of SAML in terms of how it operates, without any of that XML overhead.

Features and Goals

HTDSA explicitly solves the following security problems:

  • Request forgery. A service provider offering an API secured using HTDSA will rapidly reject requests by unknown application identities (since no key will be found) and would reject unsigned messages to those endpoints. If you have a signature and valid identity, you only need to verify the signature to gaurentee the message was constructed initially by the identifying application.
  • Response forgery. To mitigate man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks where an attacker can inject alternate responses to requests (such as OpenSSL's CVE-2014-0224) the responses are verified by the requesting application.
  • Replay protection. Server clocks must be NTP synchronized, as requests older than 30 seconds, or "in the future" by more than one second are rejected. The maximum window for replay is 31 seconds.
  • Cross-application re-use protection. Because the service provider uses keys unique to each requesting application, a properly written application will fail to validate, and reject, responses to signed requests that are unsigned or whose signature was intended for another application.
  • Application revocation. With each application having its own signing key, and the service provider generating a new keypair for each registered application, revoking keys for disruptive applications, or even having a key rotation policy for new versions, protects you against breaks in individual applications up to specific application versions, and alleviates some of the worry of long-term key re-use.
  • Proof-of-work rate limiting. Digital signatures aren't the fastest things in the world, and are somewhat computationally intensive. Use of a signature on the requests like this serves as a natural rate limit.
  • Easy SSO without token re-use. In single sign-on (SSO) scenarios, the grant tokens (user session tokens) minted by the identity provider (IDP) service are similarly signed for specific applications, preventing applications from sharing individual tokens, and optionally providing each application its own unique opaque identifier for users, i.e. to prevent correlation attacks. No attempt is made to make the tokens purely usable in isolation; revocation requires checking with the IDP and the IDP tracking the tokens (referred to as "application grants".)

Application (Client) Implementation Details

An application is any third-party software which wishes to issue RPC/API calls against a server utilizing this protocol. Applications must:

  1. Generate and securely store a 256-bit ECDSA key and store information as indicated by the authentication/authorization process.
    1. Use the NIST curves.
    2. Use the SHA-256 hashing algorithm.
    3. Share the public key with the server out-of-band, generally through a web interface.
  2. On each request:
    1. Perform request canonicalization by combining (using UNIX newlines) the following:
      1. The request's HTTP method, upper-case, e.g.: GET
      2. The request's Date header. The request will be rejected outright by the server if the Date header is out-of-bounds by more than 30 seconds using an atomic-synchronized (NTP) clock.
      3. The request URI, e.g.:
      4. The HTTP request body.
    2. Submit the HTTP request with two additional HTTP headers:
      1. X-Service — the unique identifier assigned to your application when exchanging keys.
      2. X-Signature — the result of digitally signing the aforementioned canonicalized data. May, depending on client and server capabilities, be sent as a chunked transfer HTTP header trailer. The signature should be hex encoded.
    3. Verify the response X-Signature header using the pre-exchanged application-specific public key.
    4. Discard responses which do not validate.

Server Implementation Details

A server is any software service which wishes to respond to RPC/API calls from applications utilizing this protocol. Servers must:

  1. Maintain a database of registered applications and their public keys.
  2. Generate and securely store a 256-bit ECDSA public/private key pair unique to each registered application.
    1. Use the NIST curves.
    2. Use the SHA-256 hashing algorithm.
    3. Share the public key of this pair with the client out-of-band, generally through a web interface.
  3. Before processing the request:
    1. Ensure the X-Service and X-Signature keys are present.
    2. Validate the X-Signature against the canonical data as defined in the application section.
  4. After processing the request:
    1. Ensure the returned data is either empty or valid JSON data.
    2. Canonicalize the response by combining (using UNIX newlines) the following:
      1. The requesting service ID, from the X-Service header.
      2. The HTTP method of the request, upper-case.
      3. The response's Date header.
      4. The request's endpoint URI.
      5. The response body.
    3. Add an X-Signature header that is the result of signing the canonical data using the application-specific server key.
  5. Discard requests which fail validation by returning a 400 Bad Request status code with explanation string in the body.

Implementations and Additional Material

The official implementation of the above protocol in Python is available from the htdsa-python package. A PHP implementation is also available.

Additional implementations may be available.

A flow diagram of one possible single sign-on scenario is available, illustrating how a minimal number of HTDSA-secured calls is required for the minting of application-bound user sessions.

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