Web security, whether Internet or intranet, is a confusing and difficult issue for Web managers. When I consider the many areas of Web site management, it is the issue of security that has literally kept me up nights. I worry about whether we have adequately secured our Web site and its resources where necessary. I also worry about protecting the privacy of our users when they are asked to authenticate or use the site to transmit information, such as submitting a Web-based form.
At its very highest level, Web security can be framed within three different areas: Web server security, security of the user's computer, and the security of information transmitted between the Web server and the user. Access control-which is the process of interrogating users to understand who they are (identification) and providing a mechanism for them to prove who they are (authentication)--lies at the core of security.
While on the surface these two steps of identification and authentication seem simple enough, in reality there are a variety of ways each can be achieved. Different methods have trade-offs among ease-of-use, manageability, cost, and level of security. The latter goes both ways: security for your systems and content as well as the privacy of the end user's identifying information. Identity theft poses a significant threat to online users these days. Choosing appropriate security is based on understanding the trade-offs. Methods and tools that offer comprehensive security services require investment, management, and involvement, even inconvenience, of users.
What follows is a "crash course," so to speak, in the adventures of identifying and authenticating users in order to control access to Web content and to protect users who may provide information to your Web site. This is not intended as an exhaustive discussion on this aspect of security, but a sampling of some of the more popular methods for Web-based security and considerations for each.
User authentication is the process of making users prove that they are who they say they are before allowing them access to a particular area. You may be restricting a specific resource on a server, access to a particular server or network, or a particular Web page or directory. Regardless of the level of access or security method/protocol you choose, authentication is generally the second step of a two-step process. After a user provides a login or user name as identification, the next step is to ask them to prove who they are based on something only they have. This can be a password (something they know), a token (something they possess), a signature (something only they can do), a biometric identification (some physical characteristic, such as their thumb print), or a combination of these factors. The method you choose to authenticate users generally aligns with the amount of security you need given the potential loss if security is compromised. The security process and technology or restrictions we apply to our intranet information might be far different than security we apply to access Web-based content residing on our corporate Internet.
Sometimes we have a choice in the method we use to restrict access to content and sometimes we don't. These issues dictate how security gets applied: Are your organization's security requirements, your systems environment, how much you want to spend, vendors you wish to transact with, the actual physical location of the content you wish to restrict as well as the location of your audiences local (inside the company firewall) or remote?
Over the past few years there has been a dramatic increase in the variety of subscriber-based content available for purchase, making the actual physical location of content we may point to from our Web sites somewhat nebulous. Restricting access to content that resides on our own servers generally offers greater flexibility for choosing a security method that best fits our overall systems environment. …