Applying the Web to Enterprise IT

May 29, 2013

Using iron to Encapsulate Cookies

Eran Hammer has recently created iron, a cryptographic procedure and tool to seal arbitrary data in a way so that it cannot be read and also cannot be changed without being noticed.

Besides its intended use in combination with Oz it can also be used in other scenarios. One of them being encapsulated HTTP cookies. While it is in no way a new thing to pass state to Web clients in encrypted form so they cannot read it or tamper with it, doing it right is relatively hard. Hence, it is great to now have a quasi-standard and sound definition.

Update: Looking something up in Theo Schlossnagle’s Building Scalable Internet Architectures I found a passage Addressing Security and Integrity in chapter 7, p.130 that resembles the topic of this post.

To bring iron into the Java world, I have created jiron and an example project to illustrate how to use iron for HTTP cookie authentication with encapsulated tokens.

First, let’s see, how to use jiron to seal and unseal data:

import net.jalg.jiron.Jiron;

String data = "Some secret stuff we want protected";

String sealed = Jiron.seal(data, "sealing-password",
String unsealed = Jiron.unseal(sealed, "sealing-password",

The String sealed is what you can pass around and be sure that nobody can read or modify it, unless in possession of the sealing password.

Suppose you have a Web site that employs cookie-based authentication and suppose you have some data you want to store in that cookie directly so you do not have to go to a database shared by all server instances for looking up that data. For example the user’s login, her real name and information when the cookie expires and re-authentication is enforced.

Initially, a user not in possession of the cookie will be redirected to a login form and the cookie will be issued upon submission of valid credentials. Here is an excerpt of the form processing JAX-RS resource:

String data = login + "|" + expires + "|" + realname;
String cookieValue = Jiron.seal(data, ApplicationConfig.ENCRYPTION_KEY,

NewCookie c = new NewCookie(AuthFilter.COOKIE_NAME, cookieValue);
return Response.seeOther(redirectUri).cookie(c).build();

In the HTTP response the cookie will look something like (line breaks added for clarity):


To protect a resource class by enforcing cookie auth, we bind a JAX-RS 2.0 filter to that class using a new annotation:

public String getDashboard(@Context SecurityContext sc) { ... }

The auth enforcing filter class extracts the cookie, checks expiration time and puts the data contained in the cookie in a place where it can be accessed by the resource class.

Cookie cookie = context.getCookies().get(COOKIE_NAME);
// Redirect to form if no cookie
String data = Jiron.unseal(cookie.getValue(), ApplicationConfig.ENCRYPTION_KEY,
// ...
String[] fields = data.split("\\|");
final String username = fields[0];
final long expires = Long.parseLong(fields[1]);
final String realname = fields[2];
// ...
if (now > expires) {

context.setSecurityContext(new TokenSecurityContext(username, realname));

Using the security context and a custom Principal, the resource class is provided access to the user’s login and realname.

(There is currently discussion in the JAX-RS 2 expert group to enable passing information from filters to resource classes using properties on the filter chain. That would be the better solution than the SecurityContext/Principal ‘hack’).

Please have a look at the source code for the code details.