Who Authorized These Ghosts!?

Recently at CircuitHub we’ve been making some changes to how we develop our APIs. We previously used Yesod with a custom router, but we’re currently exploring Servant for API modelling, in part due to it’s potential for code generation for other clients (e.g., our Elm frontend). Along the way, this is requiring us to rethink and reinvent previously established code, and one of those areas is authorization.

To recap, authorization is

the function of specifying access rights/privileges to resources related to information security and computer security in general and to access control in particular.

This is in contrast to authentication, which is the act of showing that someone is who they claim to be.

Authorization is a very important process, especially in a business like CircuitHub where we host many confidential projects. Accidentally exposing this data could be catastrophic to both our business and customers, so we take it very seriously.

Out of the box, Servant has experimental support for authorization, which is a good start. servant-server gives us Servant.Server.Experimental.Auth which makes it a doddle to plug in our existing authorization mechanism (cookies & Redis). But that only shows that we know who is asking for resources, how do we check that they are allowed to access the resources?

As a case study, I want to have a look at a particular end-point, /projects/:id/price. This endpoint calculates the pricing options CircuitHub can offer a project, and there are few important points to how this endpoint works:

  1. The pricing for a project depends on the user viewing it. This is because some users can consign parts so CircuitHub won’t order them. Naturally, this affects the price, so pricing is viewer dependent.
  2. Some projects are owned by organizations, and should be priced by the organization as a whole. If a user is a member of the organization that owns the project pricing has been requested for, return the pricing for the organization. If the user is not in the organization, return their own custom pricing.
  3. Private projects should only expose their pricing to superusers, the owner of the project, and any members of the project’s organization (if it’s owned by an organization).

This specification is messy and complicated, but that’s just reality doing it’s thing.

Our first approach was to try and represent this in Servant’s API type. We start with the “vanilla” route, with no authentication or authorization:

type API =
    :> Capture "id" ProjectId
    :> "price"
    :> Get '[ JSON ] Pricing

Next, we add authorization:

type API =
  AuthProtect CircuitHub
    :> "projects"
    :> Capture "id" ProjectId
    :> "price"
    :> Get '[ JSON ] Pricing

At this point, we’re on our own - Servant offers no authorization primitives (though there are discussions on this topic).

My first attempt to add authorization to this was:

type API =
  AuthorizeWith ( AuthProtect CircuitHub )
    :> "projects"
    :> CanView ( Capture "id" ProjectId )
    :> "price"
    :> Get '[ JSON ] Pricing

There are two new routing combinators here: AuthorizeWith and CanView. The idea is AuthorizeWith somehow captures the result of authenticating, and provides that information to CanView. CanView itself does some kind of authorization using a type class based on its argument - here Capture "id" ProjectId. The result is certainly something that worked, but I was unhappy with both the complexity to implement it (which is scope to get it wrong), and the lack of actual evidence of authorization.

The latter point needs some expanding. What I mean by “lacking evidence” is that with the current approach, the authorization is essentially like writing the following code:

foo = do

If I later add more resource access into doThings, what will hold me accountable to checking authorization on those resources? The answer is… nothing! This is similar to boolean blindless - we performed logical check, only to throw all the resulting evidence away immediately.

At this point I wanted to start exploring some different options. While playing around with ideas, I was reminded of the wonderful paper “Ghosts of Departed Proofs”, and it got me thinking… can we use these techniques for authorization?

Ghosts of Departed Proofs

The basic idea of GDP is to name values using higher-rank quantification, and then - in trusted modules - produce proofs that refer to these names. To name values, we introduce a Named type, and the higher-ranked function name to name things:

module Named ( Named, forgetName, name ) where

newtype Named n a = Named { forgetName :: a }

name :: a -> ( forall name. Named name a -> r ) -> r
name x f = f ( Named x )

Note that the only way to construct a Named value outside of this module is to use name, which introduces a completely distinct name for a limited scope. Within this scope, we can construct proofs that refer to these names. As a basic example, we could use GDP to prove that a number is prime:

module Prime ( IsPrime, checkPrime ) where

data IsPrime name = IsPrime

checkPrime :: Named name Int -> Maybe (IsPrime name)
checkPrime named | isPrime (forgetName named) = Just IsPrime
                 | otherwise                  = Nothing

Here we have our first proof witness - IsPrime. We can witness whether or not a named Int is prime using checkPrime - like the boolean value isPrime this determines if a number is or isn’t prime, but we get evidence that we’ve checked a specific value for primality.

This is the whirlwind tour of GDP, I highly recommend reading the paper for a more thorough explanation. Also, the library justified-containers explores these ideas in the context of maps, where we have proofs that specific items are in the map (giving us total lookups, rather than partial lookups).

GDP and Authorization

This is all well and good, but how does this help with authorization? The basic idea is that authorization is itself a proof - a proof that we can view or interact with resources in a particular way. First, we have to decide which functions need authorization - these functions will be modified to require proof values the refer to the function arguments. In this example, we’ll assume our Servant handler is going to itself make a call to the price :: ProjectId -> UserId -> m Price function. However, given the specification above, we need to make sure that user and project are compatible. To do this, we’ll name the arguments, and then introduce a proof that the user in question can view the project:

  :: Named projectId ProjectId
  -> Named userId UserId
  -> userId `CanViewProject` projectId
  -> m Price

But what is this CanViewProject proof?

A first approximation is to treat it as some kind of primitive or axiom. A blessed function can postulate this proof with no further evidence:

module CanViewProject ( CanViewProject, canViewProject ) where

data CanViewProject userId projectId =

  :: Named projectId ProjectId
  -> Named userId UserId
  -> m ( Maybe ( CanViewProject userId projectId ) )
canViewProject = do
  -- ... lots of database access/IO

  if ...
    then return ( Just TrustMe )
    else return Nothing

This is a good start! Our price function can only be called with a CanViewProject that matches the named arguments, and the only way to construct such a value is to use canViewProject. Of course we could get the implementation of this wrong, so we should focus our testing efforts to make sure it’s doing the right thing.

However, the Agda programmer in me is a little unhappy about just blindly postulating CanViewProject at the end. We’ve got a bit of vision back from our boolean blindness, but the landscape is still blurry. Fortunately, all we have to do is recruit more of the same machinery so far to subdivide this proof into smaller ones:

module ProjectIsPublic ( ProjectIsPublic, projectIsPublic ) where

data ProjectIsPublic project = TrustMe

  :: Named projectId ProjectId
  -> m ( Maybe ( ProjectIsPublic projectId ) )
module UserBelongsToProjectOrganization
  ( UserBelongsToProjectOrganization, userBelongsToProjectOrganization )

data UserBelongsToProjectOrganization user project = TrustMe

  :: Named userId UserId
  -> Named projectId ProjectId
  -> m ( Maybe ( UserBelongsToProjectOrganization userId projectId ) )
module UserIsSuperUser ( UserIsSuperUser, userIsSuperUser ) where

data UserIsSuperUser user = TrustMe

userIsSuperUser :: Named userId UserId -> m ( Maybe ( UserIsSuperUser userId ) )
module UserOwnsProject ( UserOwnsProject, userOwnsProject ) where

data UserOwnsProject user project = TrustMe

  :: Named userId UserId
  -> Named projectId ProjectId
  -> m ( Maybe ( UserOwnsProject userId projectId ) )

Armed with these smaller authorization primitives, we can build up our richer authorization scheme:

module CanViewProject where

data CanViewProject userId projectId
  = ProjectIsPublic (ProjectIsPublic projectId)
  | UserOwnsProject (UserOwnsProject userId projectId)
  | UserIsSuperUser (UserIsSuperUser userId)
  | UserBelongsToProjectOrganization
      (UserBelongsToProjectOrganization userId projectId)

  :: Named userId UserId
  -> Named projectId ProjectId
  -> m ( Maybe ( CanViewProject userId projectId ) )

Now canViewProject just calls out to the other authorization routines to build it’s proof. Furthermore, there’s something interesting here. CanViewProject doesn’t postulate anything - everything is attached with a proof of the particular authorization case. This means that we can actually open up the whole CanViewProject module to the world - there’s no need to keep anything private. By doing this and allowing people to pattern match on CanViewProject, authorization results become reusable - if something else only cares that a user is a super user, we might be able to pull this directly out of CanViewProject - no need for any redundant database checks!

In fact, this very idea can help us implement the final part of our original specification:

Some projects are owned by organizations, and should be priced by the organization as a whole. If a user is a member of the organization that owns the project pricing has been requested for, return the pricing for the organization. If the user is not in the organization, return their own custom pricing.

If we refine our UserBelongsToProjectOrganization proof, we can actually maintain a bit of extra evidence:

data UserBelongsToProjectOrganization userId projectId where
    :: { projectOrganizationId :: Named orgId UserId
       , organizationOwnsProject :: UserOwnsProject orgId projectId
    -> UserBelongsToProjectOrganization userId projectId

  :: UserBelongsToProjectOrganization userId projectId
  -> ( forall orgId. Named orgId UserId -> UserOwnsProject orgId projectId -> r )
  -> r
withUserBelongsToProjectOrganizationEvidence UserBelongsToProjectOrganization{..} k =
  k projectOrganizationId organizationOwnsProject

Now whenever we have a proof UserBelongsToProjectOrganization, we can pluck out the actual organization that we’re talking about. We also have evidence that the organization owns the project, so we can easily construct a new CanViewProject proof - proofs generate more proofs!

  :: Named projectId ProjectId
  -> Named userId UserId
  -> userId `CanViewProject` projectId
  -> m Price
price projectId userId = \case
  UserBelongsToProjectOrganization proof ->
    withUserBelongsToProjectOrganizationEvidence proof \orgId ownership ->
      price projectId orgId (UserOwnsProject ownership)

Relationship to Servant

At the start of this post, I mentioned that the goal was to integrate this with Servant. So far, we’ve looked at adding authorization to a single function, so how does this interact with Servant? Fortunately, it requires very little to change. The Servant API type is authorization free, but does mention authentication.

type API =
  AuthProtect CircuitHub
    :> "projects"
    :> Capture "id" ProjectId
    :> "price"
    :> Get '[ JSON ] Pricing

It’s only when we need to call our price function do we need to have performed some authorization, and this happens in the server-side handler. We do this by naming the respective arguments, witnessing the authorization proof, and then calling price:

priceProject :: User -> ProjectId -> Handler Pricing
priceProject user projectId = do
  name (userId user) \namedUserId ->
  name projectId \namedProjectId ->
    canViewProjectProof <-
      canViewProject namedUserId namedProjectId

    case mcanViewProjectProof of
      Nothing ->
        fail "Authorization failed"

      Just granted ->
        price namedProjectId namedUserId granted


That’s where I’ve got so far. It’s early days so far, but the approach is promising. What I really like is there is almost a virtual slider between ease and rigour. It can be easy to get carried away, naming absolutely everything and trying to find the most fundamental proofs possible. I’ve found so far that it’s better to back off a little bit - are you really going to get some set membership checks wrong? Maybe. But a property check is probably gonig to be enough to keep that function in check. We’re not in a formal proof engine setting, pretending we are just makes things harder than they need to be.

You can contact me via email at ollie@ocharles.org.uk or tweet to me @acid2. I share almost all of my work at GitHub. This post is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.