Security and access control

In most useful applications different users are allowed to do different things, depending on rules that form part of the underlying model. Implementing such access control complicates even simple applications, and the smallest mistake can be a big deal.

To try and mitigate this problem, Reahl makes it possible for a programmer to state the access to various different user interface elements and elements of a model. Using this information, the framework selectively greys out elements, completely hides others or outright refuses requests to resources that are off-limits.

Some security features are also needed to prevent malicious users with enough technical knowledge to circumvent such rules that have been put in place.

An example model

In order to show these access control features at work, a more involved example is needed. Our example application is an extension of the address book application used before. To spice it up, users now have to log into the application, and each user has a separate address book. Of course, one user is not allowed to see the address book of another.

Users can share their own address book with other users though – let’s call these other users the collaborators to the shared AddressBook. When sharing your address book with another user, you specify what rights the other users have to your address book. There are three possibilities:

  • If someone can collaborate, but has no special rights, that someone is merely allowed to see addresses in your address book, but not allowed to change anything; or
  • Someone can collaborate and be granted the right to edit existing addresses in your address book; or
  • Someone who collaborates can be granted the right to add new addresses to your address book.

There is one final rule: if you’re only allowed to edit (not add) addresses in someone else’s address book, you’ll be able to change the email address part, but not the actual name of the person it belongs to.

Here is a little model implementing the basic concepts of the application. To keep things simple, a user is represented by an EmailAndPasswordSystemAccount – something that’s already built, and can be re-used.


A model for users with address books


The way the Collaborator relationhip is modelled here in UML, is interesting. To just indicate that an AddressBook has Collaborators, the line representing the relationship would suffice. In this case, that line is also modelled as a class in its own right because each relationship has to hold some more info: the rights a particular EmailAndPasswordSystemAccount has to the particular AddressBook for a particular instance of the relationship.

An example user interface

The user interface works as follows: the home page looks different, depending on whether you are logged in or not. To users that are not logged in, it presents a way to log in. Once logged in, it changes to show a list of address books you are allowed to view. Each address book listed also links to a page where you can see the contents of the address book.

Once on the page of an address book, there is a menu from which you can choose to add an address or add a collaborator. Each address in the address book has an edit button as before.


A schematic plan of the user interface

The schematic of the user interface above includes everything any user could possibly do with the application. That is how applications are planned and built. Access control for an individual user will just have the effect that some elements would be missing for that user, or greyed out.

For example: if you are on someone else’s address book you can’t see the “Add Collaborator” item in the Menu at all. For a variation on the theme, the “Add Address” item is always visible, but is disabled unless you are allowed to add addresses in the address book viewed. The same goes for the “Edit” Button next to each address – it is always there, but greyed out unless you are allowed to add addresses in the address book viewed. When editing an address, the Input for “Name” is only editable if you are allowed to add addresses to the address book.

Even if you’ve taken care to implement all the above, a malicious user can quite easily figure out how to manually type an URL to, for example view an address book that they are not allowed to see. If this happens, the server responds with an error indicating to the browser that the user is not allowed access to the entire View.

Another possible place where an attacker could try to break in is right at the start when the user has to log in to the application. Since the user has to type a password, that password will be sent back to the server and could be seen by a malicious party scanning the traffic between the server and the browser. Reahl automatically detects this potential problem, and serves the home page via an encrypted connection.

Implementing the application

This is not a trivial example. Its code touches on quite a number of topics. We will proceed to build the application in increments – please familiarise yourself with the code as we go along. That way, it is easier to focus your attention on the bits that form part of the topic of this section.

Before we can move on completely, it is good to know a bit more about the underlying mechanisms that safeguard the security of the access control mechanisms now put in place.