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Article Content


Security Models For Web-Based Applications


Post date : January 23, 2013



The rapid proliferation of the
Internet and the cost-effective growth
of its key enabling technologies are
revolutionizing information technology
and creating unprecedented
opportunities for developing largescale
distributed applications. At the
same time, there is a growing concern
over the security of Web-based applications,
which are rapidly being
deployed over the Internet. For
example, e-commerce—the leading
Web-based application—is projected
to have a market exceeding $1 trillion over the
next several years. However, this application
has already become a security nightmare for
both customers and business enterprises as
indicated by the recent episodes involving
unauthorized access to credit card information.
Other leading Web-based applications with considerable
information security and privacy issues
include telemedicine-based health-care services and
online services or businesses involving both public
and private sectors. Many of these applications are
supported by workflow management systems
(WFMSs). A large number of public and private
enterprises are in the forefront of adopting Internetbased
WFMSs and finding ways to improve their
services and decision-making processes, hence we
are faced with the daunting challenge of ensuring
the security and privacy of information in such
Web-based applications.

Typically, a Web-based application can be represented
as a three-tier architecture, depicted in the figure,
which includes a Web client, network
servers, and a back-end information
system supported by a suite of
databases. For transaction-oriented
applications, such as e-commerce, middleware
is usually provided between the
network servers and back-end systems
to ensure proper interoperability.
Considerable security challenges and
vulnerabilities exist within each component
of this architecture. Existing public-
key infrastructures (PKIs) provide
encryption mechanisms for ensuring
information confidentiality, as well as digital signature
techniques for authentication, data
integrity and non-repudiation. As no
access authorization services are provided in
this approach, it has a rather limited scope for
Web-based applications.

The strong need for information security on
the Internet is attributable to several factors, including
the massive interconnection of heterogeneous and
distributed systems, the availability of high volumes
of sensitive information at the end systems maintained
by corporations and government agencies, easy
distribution of automated malicious software by
malfeasors, the ease with which computer crimes can
be committed anonymously from across geographic
boundaries, and the lack of forensic evidence in computer
crimes, which makes the detection and prosecution
of criminals extremely difficult.

Two classes of services are crucial for a secure
Internet infrastructure. These include access control
services and communication security services. Access

Using traditional and emerging access control approaches to
develop secure applications for the Web.
COMMUNICATIONS OF THE ACM February 2001/Vol. 44, No. 2 39
control services protect Internet resources from unauthorized
use, whereas communication security services
ensure confidentiality and integrity of data
transmitted over the network, in addition to nonrepudiation
of services to the communicating entities.
An important prerequisite for access control is user
authentication, the process that establishes the identity
of a user. In the context of the Internet, we
assume authentication is handled by the communication
security services.

Security in the Web Environment

End users are exposed to several security and privacy
risks when using Web browsers, and browser vulnerabilities
can result in compromising the security
of a Web client [4]. Information about a user such
as login name or machine name can be collected
and used to profile the user, thus raising serious privacy
concerns. Cookies, the data stored on the
client’s machine and exchanged between the Web
client and the Web server to maintain connection
information, can be used for the purpose of gathering
such information. A source of vulnerability at
the client site also comes from the use of executable
content on the Web, such as Java applets, ActiveX
controls, and the like. The current improvement in
JDK1.2, which allows signed applets, requires the
client to use a security policy for downloadable
applets. Many sites also use push technology to
deliver Web content to clients. This process can result
in serious security breaches, as the content provider
can exploit browser vulnerabilities by sending malicious
executable code or by overwhelming the system
by pushing a high volume of information.

Network servers are the places where most network
services are located, such as the Web server, the mail
server, and so forth. Firewall technology has become
the most popular defense for these servers against the
open untrusted Internet, as depicted in Figure 1.
Though firewalls can prevent illegitimate traffic from
traveling from the Internet to corporate networks,
legitimate requests that pass through a firewall may
be used for a data-driven attack on the networks or
back-end systems [4, 5]. Configuration of firewalls
and network servers is a formidable and errorprone
task. This emphasizes the
need to restrict or reduce complexity
at the firewalls and networks and
complement firewalls with robust
host-based security.

In large corporate intranets, the
insider attack is a growing security concern.
A joint study on computer crimes conducted by
the Computer Security Institute (CSI) and the FBI
indicates that the most serious losses in enterprises
occur through unauthorized access by insiders, and
71% of respondents had detected unauthorized access
by insiders [6]. Therefore, there is a strong need for
developing new access control models or extending
the existing ones to neutralize security threats and
address the diverse security requirements of Webbased

Justification for Access Control

Public-key infrastructures have been an important
development for addressing the security concerns of
40 February 2001/Vol. 44, No. 2 COMMUNICATIONS OF THE ACM
Web applications. Users can be authenticated using
PKI facilities, however, such facilities do not provide
any mechanism for access control at the end systems.
The fact that insider attacks constitute a considerable
threat further accentuates the need for robust
host-based security, whereby substantial authentication
and access control services must be deployed at
the host. The insider attack threat further demonstrates
a strong need for efficient security management
and administration functions in an enterprise.

Host-based security can also help the network
servers and firewalls for added intranet security.
Security models that allow efficient security management
and administration can also be extended
for multidomain environments, where interactions
among heterogeneous policy domains are intensive.
Typical applications of multidomain environments
include e-commerce, corporate databases, and digital
government. Such applications need to interconnect
and interoperate their business logic while
protecting sensitive information.

The Web primarily uses a hypertext approach for
information dissemination. With the growth of
e-commerce applications, the Web is rapidly being
transformed into an activity- or transaction-intensive
environment. Security models for hypertext-based
systems are rare and still in their infancy stages. For
the Web, access models and mechanisms should facilitate
dynamic changes in the content and context of
information, allow monitoring of the state of the system,
and facilitate carrying out transactional activities.
Existing access models lack these features.
Access Control Models

Information systems security refers to protection of
information systems against unauthorized access to
or modification of information, whether in storage,
processing or transit, and against denial of service to
authorized users, including measures necessary to
detect, document, and counter such threats. The
main goals of information security are confidentiality
or secrecy, integrity, availability, accountability,
and assurance. The goal of confidentiality is to
ensure the information is not accessed by an unauthorized
person. The goal of information integrity is
to protect information from unauthorized modification.
Information availability ensures the information
is available when needed and is not made
inaccessible by malicious data-denial activities.
Information accountability ensures that every action
of an entity can be uniquely traced back to the
entity. Security assurance is the degree of confidence
in the security of the system with respect to predefined
security goals.

Several models have been proposed to address the
access control requirements of distributed applications.
Traditional access control models are broadly
categorized as discretionary access control (DAC) and
mandatory access control (MAC) models. New models
such as role-based access control (RBAC) or taskbased
access control (TBAC) models have been
proposed to address the security requirements of a
wider range of applications. We briefly highlight the
main differences among these models and provide an
assessment of their suitability for supporting Webbased

Discretionary Access Control (DAC) Model

In DAC models, all the subjects and objects in a system
are enumerated and the access authorization
rules for each subject and object in the system are
specified. Subjects can be users, groups, or processes
that act on behalf of other subjects. If a subject is the
owner of an object, the subject is authorized to grant
or revoke access rights on the object to other subjects
at his discretion. DAC policies are flexible and the
most widely used for Web-based applications. However,
these policies do not provide high security
assurance. For example, DAC allows copying of data
from one object to another, which can result in
allowing access to a copy of data to a user who does
not have access to the original data. Such risks can
propagate to the entire Web environment, causing
serious violation of security goals.

Among the existing representations of DAC models,
a noticeable one is the HRU (Harrison, Ruzzo
and Ullman) access control matrix (ACM) model [5].
The matrix specifies access rights of subjects for
accessing objects in the system. In conjunction with
Multilayered architecture for
Web-based applications.

Business logic
(e.g., CGI script)
B's security domain
Network server
Network server
Access control policy
End system
(Information system)
Business logic
(e.g., CGI script)
A's security domain
End system
(Information system)
Access control policy

ACM, the HRU model uses a set of commands to
construct the overall authorization scheme. Safety in
HRU is in general undecidable. The basic safety
problem is to determine whether there exists a reachable
state in which a particular subject possesses a particular
privilege that it did not previously possess.

Several new models have recently been proposed for
systems for which safety problems are decidable and
tractable. Most of these models are based on the
notion of security type, and include the Schematic
Protection Model (SPM), the Typed Access Matrix
(TAM) model, and the Dynamically Typed Access
Control (DTAC) model [7]. Unlike SPM and TAM,
which have subject types and object types, DTAC
makes no distinction between subjects and objects.
The DTAC model uses a dynamic typing mechanism
that makes it suitable for a dynamic environment such
as the Internet. In DTAC, a safety invariant is maintained
by carrying out static analysis and dynamic
checks on the security aspects of the system. This feature
gives DTAC the power to model task-based security
[7]. By grouping entities into types, this model can
reduce the size of the configuration and can enhance
the administrative functions. While these extensions
are intended to broaden the scope of ACM-based
models, they are still in the theoretical development
stage, with little or no experimental results.

Mandatory Access Control (MAC) Model
In a MAC model, all subjects and objects are classified
based on predefined sensitivity levels that are
used in the access decision process. An important
goal of a MAC model is to control information flow
in order to ensure confidentiality and integrity of
the information, which is not addressed by DAC
models. For example, to ensure information confidentiality
in defense applications, a MAC model can
be implemented using a multilevel security mechanism
that uses no read-up and no write-down rules,
also known as Bell-LaPadula restrictions. These rules
are designed to ensure that information does not
flow from a higher sensitivity level to a lower sensitivity
level. To achieve information integrity, the
access rules are formulated as no-read-down and nowrite-
up [8]. The goal in this case is not to allow the
flow of low integrity information to high integrity
objects. The Chinese Wall policy, which addresses
conflict of interest issues relevant to financial industries,
can also be implemented using a MAC model
[8]. For Web-based applications, multilevel classification
of information may be an essential requirement
that can be enforced by a service provider to
distinguish among the users and the type of information
being accessed.

Unlike DAC, MAC models provide more robust
protection mechanisms for data, and deal with more
specific security requirements, such as an information
flow control policy [8]. However, enforcement of
MAC policies is often a difficult task, and in particular
for Web-based applications, they do not provide
viable solutions because they lack adequate flexibility.
Furthermore, organizational security needs are often a
mixture of policies that may need to use both DAC
and MAC models, which necessitates seeking solutions
beyond those provided by DAC and MAC
models only. Originally, these models were not
intended for Web-based applications. In particular,
their design philosophy was not intended to serve
hypertext-based systems, which is common in a Webbased
environment. The hypertext information
model uses special objects such as links, frames or
slots, document nodes, and so forth, all of which need
to be protected [2]. Hypertext systems are characterized
by three features, which include information
about the connections among data items, their
unique navigational aspects, and the absence of a
schema. Although extensions enabling these models
to address security concerns have been proposed in
the literature, more challenging issues such as control
of copy and dissemination of information, active
object management, and support for multiple data
types and complex interrelationships have yet to be
explored in order to develop viable solutions for Webbased

Role-based Access Control (RBAC) Model

Role-based access control (RBAC) models are
receiving increased attention as a generalized
approach to access control because they provide several
well-recognized advantages [7]. As roles represent
organizational responsibilities and functions, a
role-based model directly supports arbitrary, organization-
specific security policies. The RBAC models
have been shown to be “policy-neutral” [7] in the
sense that using role hierarchies and constraints, a
wide range of security policies can be expressed,
including traditional DAC and MAC, and user-specific
ones. Security administration is also greatly
simplified by the use of roles to organize access privileges.
For example, if a user moves to a new function
within the organization, the user can simply be
assigned to the new role and removed from the old
one, whereas in the absence of an RBAC model, the
user’s old privileges would have to be individually
revoked, and new privileges would have to be
granted. Special administrative roles can be designated
to manage other roles. Such administrative
COMMUNICATIONS OF THE ACM February 2001/Vol. 44, No. 2 41
roles can be hierarchically organized to provide a
well-organized security management structure,
which is desirable in large Web-based enterprises
where security management becomes a complex
task. Several authorization-constraints may need to
be enforced in an organization to protect information
misuse and prevent fraudulent activities. A typical
authorization constraint, which is relevant and
well-known in the security area, is separation of
duties (SOD). Reducing the risk of fraud by not
allowing any individual to have sufficient authority
within the system to single-handedly perpetrate
fraud is the intent of SOD. Such constraints can be
easily expressed using an RBAC model through
SOD constraints on roles, user-role assignments and
role-privilege assignments. Furthermore, using
assigned roles, users can sign on with the least privilege
set required for any access. In case of inadvertent
errors, such least privilege assignment can
ensure minimal damage.

An important consideration in RBAC systems is
the possible temporal constraints that may exist on
roles, such as the time and duration of role activations,
and timed-triggering of a role by an activation
of another role [7]. Using an RBAC model is a highly
desirable goal for addressing the key security requirements
of Web-based applications in general, and
WFMSs in particular. Roles can be assigned to workflow
tasks so that a user with any of the roles related
to a task may be authorized to execute it. However,
the challenge is to develop a robust RBAC framework
to handle the complex security needs of a WFMS,
where temporal, nontemporal, and dependency constraints
among roles and tasks exist.

A recent implementation of an RBAC system for
the Web environment (RBAC/Web) has been
reported in [3]. The implementation consists of a
Web server to enforce RBAC policies and an administrative
tool to allow security administration. The
system places no requirements on the browser. When
a user issues an access request, a role is assigned to the
requester after establishing a session using the available
authentication and confidentiality services.
These services include the Secure Socket Layer (SSL),
Secure HTTP (SHTTP), and an authentication
mechanism that uses username/passwords. To ensure
better administration, RBAC/Web can be integrated
with an administrative model such as URA97 (User-
Role Assignment ‘97), which uses administrative roles
to manage other roles.

Several other RBAC implementations have been
developed, including the hyperDrive System developed
by the Internal Revenue Service, TrustedWeb,
getAccess by enCommerce, and SESAME. Trusted-
Web requires specific software in the client machine.
The I-RBAC (RBAC for an intranet) model [9] uses
software agents to distinguish between the local role
hierarchies and the global role hierarchy of the entire
intranet. The local network objects are known only to
the local servers, whereas the global network objects
are known throughout the intranet. Information
about mapping between the global roles and local
roles is kept in a database and is used when a global
network object needs to access an object on another
server. The disadvantage of I-RBAC is that maintaining
consistent information about the roles becomes
difficult as the number of roles increases.
A key feature of RBAC is its potential support for
a multidomain environment, which makes it an
attractive candidate for Web-based applications.
Role-hierarchy mapping between two RBAC-based
policy domains can be used to define a metapolicy for
secure interoperation.

Access Control Models for Tasks and Workflows

The models discussed previously use the subjectobject
view toward security. These models have a
limited scope and are not flexible enough to allow
access policies based on the content of information
or the nature of tasks/transactions in a WFMS.
WFMSs have emerged as a key technology for
enabling activity-intensive Web applications that
require extensive automated transactional functions.
Such applications typically constitute a complex mix
of tasks and transactions that span departmental,
organizational, geographical and cultural boundaries,
further exacerbating the complexity of Web
security. Although there exists a pressing need to
develop access control models that can provide
strong support for activity and task-intensive applications,
no existing access control models have the
capability to address the major security issues related
to these applications.

Several authorization models related to WFMSs
have been proposed. A viable approach to enforce
arbitrary security requirements during the execution
of workflow tasks is to assign roles to workflow tasks
[1]. The workflow tasks of Web-based applications
can be distributed over multiple heterogeneous security
domains, and may have strict temporal and intertask
dependency constraints. In addition, roles
assigned to tasks may have their own temporal and
nontemporal constraints that may be static or
dynamic in nature. Although the use of an RBAC
framework for ensuring workflow security has been
proposed in the literature, substantial extensions are
needed to address security issues related to Web
42 February 2001/Vol. 44, No. 2 COMMUNICATIONS OF THE ACM
applications and WFMSs.

To address the security issues
related to task-oriented systems
and to effectively serve the
unique needs of such systems,
researchers in [10] propose a family
of task-based access control
(TBAC) models that constitutes
four models arranged in form of
a hierarchy. The TBAC0 model
represents the base model that
provides the basic or the minimum
facilities, such as tasks,
authorization steps, and their
dependencies. The TBAC1
model is an extension of TBAC0
that includes the composite
authorizations of two or more
authorization steps. The TBAC2
model is another extension of
TBAC0 that allows both static
and dynamic constraints. The
TBAC3 model is a consolidated
model that has features of both
the TBAC1 and TBAC2 models.

Agent-based Approach
With the increase of Internet
applications, software agents are
becoming popular as an emerging
system-building paradigm.
This paradigm can be effectively
used to provide security features
for Web applications. An agent
is a process characterized by
adaptation, cooperation, autonomy,
and mobility. Some agent
communication language can be
used to negotiate policies during
conflicts for secure interoperation among participating
policy domains. Agents can be assigned security
enforcement tasks at the servers and client machines.
Although mobility and adaptability are essential to
the efficient use of Internet resources, they pose several
security threats. For example, an agent can
engage in malicious behavior, thus disrupting normal
operation of the host. Similarly, a host may be
able to affect the activity of an agent by denying
required access to local information resources.

Certificate-based Approach

Public-key infrastructure technology is maturing,
and the use of PKI certificates is expected to be ubiquitous
in the near future. Certificates issued by a PKI
facility can be used for enforcing access control in
the Web environment. An example is the use of an
extended X.509 certificate that carries role information
about a user [7]. These certificates are issued by
a certification authority that acts as a trust center in
the global Web environment.

The use of public-key certificates is suitable for simple
applications. These techniques can be used to
either support a host’s access control method by carrying
access control information or provide a separate
access control mechanism based on trust centers.


We have discussed several access control models and
approaches that can be used to disseminate and
COMMUNICATIONS OF THE ACM February 2001/Vol. 44, No. 2 43
• Ownership-based, flexible, most widely used, does not provide
high degree of security, and hence low assurance
• Typed versions such as SPM, TAM, and DTAC are expressive but
have little or no experience base
• DTAC can handle dynamic changes and task-based control
(better than RBAC)
• Most cannot be used where classification levels are needed
• Typed versions have tried to include classification levels
• Administration-based
• Information flow control rules
• High level of security, and hence high assurance, but less flexible
• Policy-neutral/flexible
• Principle of least privilege
• Separation of duty
• Easy administrative features
• Able to express DAC, MAC, and user-specific policies using role
hierarchy and constraints
• Can be easily incorporated into current technologies
• Good for multidomain environments when policies are expressed
using role hierarchies and constraints
• Task-oriented authorization paradigm
• RBAC is highly beneficial for WFMS
• TBAC is at an initial stage of development (no formalism yet)
• A key component for success of transaction-intensive e-commerce,
medical applications, and so forth
• Approach based on hypertext model or document characterizationinfancy
• Essential for providing formal base for the security of Web objects including
links and nodes; access modes include browsing and viewing
• Utilization of existing PKI facilities
• Complements the host's access control model
• Can use trust centers in the Web
• Adaptability and mobility
• Mobile agents introduce new security issues
• Can be considered a complementary system-building paradigm, rather
than a model or mechanism for specific security implementation
• May be useful in multidomain environments (for example, for
policy negotiation)

Access control

Approaches and features compared.

Appraoch Features from Web Perspective
exchange information securely, and allow secure execution
of WFMSs. However, comprehensive frameworks
are needed to address the multifaceted
security issues related to Web-based applications. In
particular, robust access control models are needed
to allow: controlled access, dissemination and sharing
of information based on content, context, or
time; secure execution of tasks and workflows;
secure interoperation in a dynamic distributed
enterprise environment; and efficient management
and administration of security.

The table summarizes the key features of each
access control model and approach discussed here.
The DAC and MAC models lack capabilities
needed to support security requirements of emerging
enterprises and Web-based applications. Newer
models such as SPM, TAM, and DTAC have the
potential to support Web-based applications. In
particular, DTAC’s feature of using safety invariants
in a dynamic environment is highly desirable for
dynamic and transaction-intensive workflow-based
applications. Hypertext-based authorization models
are essential for secure composition and distribution
of complex Web documents. However, these
security models are yet to be fully developed and
assessed for their efficacy and viability to support
Web-based applications.

Achieving secure interoperation in a heterogeneous
Web environment is a difficult task, because
of the inherent dynamism and evolving security
requirements of the underlying autonomous
administrative domains. Using RBAC models and
software security agents are suitable approaches for
such environments. The RBAC models have several
desirable features such as flexibility, policyneutrality,
better support for security management
and administration, the principle of least privilege,
and other aspects that make them attractive candidates
for developing secure Web-based applications.
In addition, they can represent traditional
DAC and MAC as well as user-defined or organization-
specific security policies. Furthermore, an
RBAC model provides a natural mechanism for
addressing the security issues related to the execution
of tasks and workflows. A key advantage of
RBAC models is the ease of their deployment over
the Internet. The use of RBAC in conjunction
with PKI facilities can provide a pragmatic
approach to addressing issues related to security of
distributed Web-based applications and WFMSs.
The TBAC models represent efforts toward finding
effective security solutions for the unique needs of
task-based systems. However, they are still in the
early stages of development.


We have presented a comparative assessment of
existing security models in terms of supporting
Web-based applications and WFMSs. Although
there has been phenomenal growth of Web-based
applications on the Internet, access control issues
related to Web security have largely been neglected.
The RBAC models are expected to provide a viable
framework for addressing a wide range of security
requirements for large enterprises. However, several
extensions to the existing RBAC models are needed
to develop workable solutions to adequately address
such needs.