Upcoming Alpha Release and Related Decisions

April 21, 2021

As I plan the next phase of this project, I keep coming back to a relatively small number of questions about my priorities and objectives. I've settled on answers to most of them--decisions that fit with my values and overall goals. These decisions are not final; they are pragmatic tools to help me focus on the work at hand. I want to document them here for my own reference and as a way of inviting comment.

The next release will be an alpha

In the past, I've released my designs as deployment exercises; demonstrations of how my tools and methods work. The next release will not be an exercise; it will be a system that is intended to be used rather than immediately torn down. It will be what's called an alpha release--a version that is known to be preliminary and incomplete, but enough for practitioners and enthusiasts to try out.

The product development side of release planning[1] can be oversimplified (usefully) to two categories: in-scope and out-of-scope. Anything in-scope is planned to be included in the release; anything out-of-scope is planned not to be in the release[2]. I've decided on a set of things to be in-scope and out-of-scope for this release; these lists may change a little but I expect not much.

The following things are in scope:

  1. An administration website controlled by a login system. This will include two plugins: a plugin for managing a blog (see #2) and a plugin for viewing traffic to the blog. The plugin for managing the blog will allow the user to write, edit, post, and delete blog entries. The plugin for viewing traffic will display some convenient view of the data from the site's request logs (not necessarily anything else). For the purpose of this item, "writing a blog post" includes uploading any images to be included in the post, as well as processing and storing them appropriately.

    Note that the administration system does not have broad permissions on the underlying AWS account. It cannot perform actions like creating cloud functions, setting user permissions, etc. It only has permissions to do a small number of specific things: put files in buckets for the blog site and read the log databases.

  2. A blog website on a different domain than the administration website. This blog will be static as far as a visitor from the internet is concerned; it will simply be a set of files in an S3 bucket set up as a website. Those files will be managed from the administration site.

  3. A visibility system that collects and manages the operational data from the rest of the deployed system. This starts with an outline of the overall deployed infrastructure; we tell it "there's going to be a blog, and an admin site, etc." The visibility system's job is to say "OK, tell the blog site to send its logs here and I'll take care of them; tell the admin site to send its logs there, and if you have random cloud functions, tell them to send their logs to this other place. Then, when you want to look at any of that data, you go over here and you access it using these tools."

    The design of the visibility system is conceptually simple: all the logs go into an S3 bucket, in a special format so that they can be queried using database-query syntax (SQL). The implementation of the visibility system is somewhat complex: it manages permissions for the stored data conservatively[3], it sets up drop locations for request logs, moves them to storage locations, and adds them to databases; it manages query permissions on the databases.

  4. An archival storage system that permanently backs up artifacts of human attention, such as blog post text, images, and potentially image metadata. This system is not intended for use except for disaster recovery; it's not the primary working copy of any document. It will replicate all of its data in deep storage on three continents.

    The system consists of a replication function and three buckets. It monitors the upload path in the bucket associated with the administration site; anything that the user uploads is saved off to deep storage. Note that this does not include the data in the visibility system.

  5. The alpha system will include a prototype plugin system; a way for features like the blog subsystem to integrate with the admin, visibility, and archive systems.

The following things are out of scope:

  1. Multifactor auth on the login system.

  2. Circuit breakers for cost overages. I'm marking this out of scope because I love this idea and I can feel it pulling at my attention but I don't have capacity for it in this release. The implementation is simple; a function that has permissions to disable cloudfront distributions and perhaps delete permission policies. It is connected to a billing alert, so that if the billing alert fires, the function shuts down the website(s) and cancels all permissions to write to storage locations. The effect of this would be that the processing parts of the systems stop but none of the data is lost. To restore the system to an operational state, you would need to re-run terraform (exactly the same as the system installation process). Terraform would notice all the changes made by the circuit breaker and undo them.

  3. Any functionality beyond "blog," including direct messaging, payment processing, etc. These are for subsequent releases.

Finally, an alpha system carries risk. I've been using these subsystems for between one and four months; they seem to me to be cheap, reliable, and secure, and their designs stable. However, any of those things can turn out not to be the case when software is first released to a wide audience. If there are significant bugs affecting the system's cost, reliability, or security, or if for some reason the design of one or more subsystems needs to change significantly, then deployed alpha systems may need to be changed significantly, including being deleted and rebuilt.

The plugin system will use guard rails, not barricades, between plugins and the main system

Both guard rails and barricades are types of security controls, but their functions are different. Guard rails protect against accidents, while barricades protect against adversaries. There are two modes where we need to think about guarding plugin permissions; installation and operation.

The installation step is when we're running terraform to install the system and its plugins. This is the riskiest phase, because we use admin permissions to run terraform, so if a malicious plugin developer got code into this phase, they could do anything. The strategy for preventing this from happening is that, for now, there are no plugins except the ones I've written myself. This overall system prioritizes trusting its owner, which inescapably means that attacks that target the owner's psychological vulnerabilities--social engineering, etc.--will always be a risk. If we want to minimize this risk in the installation step, we have a pretty tricky line to walk, because there's no simple way to distinguish useful actions from malicious actions[4]. One approach to this is to "sandbox" the permissions that a plugin gets during installation; restricting it to just the things that it needs to do. I don't feel able to do that yet for two reasons: first, I want more experience writing plugins before I try to build a sandboxing system; if I try to do it now I will definitely get it wrong and end up having to rewrite it later. Second, the only designs I can think of at the moment would add complexity to the installation process. Right now, I'm the only one writing code and there are no other system owners. I can't justify making it more difficult to deploy the system in anticipation of system owners and plugin authors who have yet to materialize. Walk first, run later. From the point of view of a plugin author, the installation system includes guard rails to prevent mistakes; it does not include barricades to defend against deliberate attacks.

In the operation mode, I'm pretty confident in the way that things are locked down. As I said earlier, none of the deployed services--the admin website, the visibility system, etc--have permission to modify the infrastructure beyond writing to storage locations. If the login system was compromised, the adversary would be able to view, edit, post, and delete blog entries, save things to (but not delete things from) the archive system, and view (but not edit the underlying data from) several databases of logs. They would not be able to modify AWS permissions, create cloud functions, alter networking settings, or anything else.

In a previous post, I outlined my proposal for isolating plugin permissions from each other during operation. I've tried my best to invite critique of that design; I posted it to security stack exchange and all my social media except instagram. So far no one has come forward with vulnerabilities, but my network is small. I should also admit that "inviting critique" in this case equals "soliciting unpaid labor." I happen to think that most of the people capable of that kind of critique owe the world a bit of pro-bono work, given the externalities software has imposed on society, but I'm not volunteering to fight that battle in addition to the unpaid work I'm already doing.

This system is not intended or designed to guard against anyone who can show AWS a warrant

This system does not encrypt the owner's data; it relies for its security on the AWS permission system. AWS does provide encryption options for S3, but I'm not using them right now. My reasoning (definitely up for debate if you see something I'm missing) is:

The most (only?) secure way to use a system like AWS, if you want to protect your data from AWS, is to encrypt it before it gets to AWS and not decrypt it until after it leaves. Doing that would require that you have encryption / decryption keys stored on the devices where you use this system. That kind of key management (actually doing it right, not just making it look ok from a distance) is hard, and I'm not confident enough in my abilities to attempt it. The best long-term possibility that I see would be for an enterprising Secure Scuttlebutt practitioner to use this system as an intermediary for storing and transferring SSB data. That could work, and it could be designed to pre-encrypt data before it hit AWS servers, making it a plausibly-effective direction to explore.

Barring an end-to-end solution, the remaining encryption options are those offered by AWS itself. We must assume that AWS would comply with a US warrant (including a secret warrant). What that means is that if we encrypt data with a key managed by AWS, AWS will be able to use that key to decrypt the data, and will do so if presented with a warrant. So we're not talking about security from nation-states. What remains? I can think of three other directions adversaries might come from: people who break into the services we build on AWS through the public internet; people within AWS who want to spy on our data; and people who get access to an un-wiped AWS hard drive on which our data has been stored (for instance, someone breaking into the data center or somehow getting a drive that was disposed of improperly). The encryption AWS offers for S3 is encryption at rest, which means that S3 encrypts the data before storing it and decrypts it when we access it. What this means is that within our system, anything that has permission to look at the data also has permission to decrypt it. If any of these services were compromised, it wouldn't matter whether the data was encrypted; the adversary would necessarily have permission to use the key as well. So that means that this encryption only protects us against two things--people within AWS who have access to the S3 services but don't have access to the key-management services, and people who can get their hands on AWS hard drives.

We could still use this encryption to defend against these two types of threats. But there are two costs to this decision, and one of them is kind of important. The less-important cost is money. It would probably be slightly-to-somewhat more expensive to encrypt all this data, depending on how we wanted to do it. My other worry, though, which is ultimately why I don't want to use this encryption, is the risk of data loss. When data is securely encrypted, losing access to the key is the same as losing access to the data. Now, I'm confident that AWS has done a good job on their key management systems. But there can't be zero risk--there's always a little--that something could go wrong and mess up those key stores.

So, when we stack up all the pros and cons, we see that encryption is a little more expensive than not, a little riskier than not in terms of data loss, doesn't protect us from the most likely scenarios, and only does protect us against some fairly unlikely ones. I've thought about this a lot, and I keep landing in the "no" column.

I imagine that some people will feel strongly that they want this, and that's ok. If you're one of those people, feel free to say so; if I hear that from enough people I'll probably do it (or make it an option) on that basis alone. But for now it's not a priority. And as I said before, if you're looking for security against nation states, you're going to need more help than I or this system can give you.


In my early January check-in, I wrote about the basic components I was developing, many of which are going to be in this alpha release. I said, "These capabilities and others form the underwater part of the iceberg--they will take a while to get right and for most of that time it'll seem like not much progress is being made. Once they reach a certain critical mass, things will start to happen fast." We're still probably a month or two away from that tipping point; I don't expect it to happen until I've published a beta release after the upcoming alpha. I had hoped to be closer than that by now, but being a month or two behind schedule at month 7 of a planned 12-month project is not unusual for this kind of work. My progress has been satisfyingly steady and I've been working at a comfortable pace.

As always, I welcome comments via email or on social media; I'm not hard to find.

  1. As opposed to the deployment side, the operations side, the marketing side, the accounting side, etc. ↩︎

  2. People sometimes use "out-of-scope" to mean "if we have time." That's not how I use the term. For me, the purpose of declaring something out-of-scope is to remove it from the set of things I consider in immediate decisions. It's something that I've deliberately set aside until after the release cycle ends (at which point I'll reevaluate if appropriate). ↩︎

  3. A full writeup on this is forthcoming, probably. A place to start looking at the code is here. ↩︎

  4. If you let a plugin author have write access to an S3 path, they can write data to it infinitely, costing a potentially infinite amount. If you let them have access to read data, they can spy on it. Capabilities that are required for intended uses can be abused for adversarial uses. ↩︎