Protecting static content selectively by OpenID

When I created my on-line photo album, we had the year 2001 and there was nothing wrong with publishing ones photos in the Internet. It has been almost ten years now, and things have changed. Privacy is an issue, especially when it also affects your friends and family.

The problem

So I needed to find some protection. These were my requirements:

  1. I only want to protect parts of the site, as there are some pictures that I intentionally share with the public. This selection should be possible down to the individual image.
  2. The solution should work without any dynamic server component besides the web server itself. This rules out any self-written CGI scripts as well.
  3. One password, given to all my friends etc., is not sufficient as it might leak to unintended audience.
  4. I do not want my visitors to have to register and remember yet another username and password just for my site. I also do not want to manage this user database.
  5. I do not want to have do large changes to the file structure of my photo album.

This rules out most common options, e.g. protection by a .htpasswd file. Requirements 3 and 4 point to a solution based on OpenID. With OpenID, my visitors can authenticate against a service they already use (Google, Yahoo, etc.), relieving me from the burden of maintaining a user database and them from having to remember a password.

There is a mod_auth_openid module for the Apache webserver, and it is even distributed with Debian in the libapache2-mod-auth-openid package. So requirement 2 is fulfilled. The tricky part is: How do we achieve OpenID protection for some images, and not for others.

The solution

I first played around with selectively enabling or disabling mod_auth_openid based on <FileMatch> directives in the Apache configuration, but it was not elegant and would not scale well. I have more than 20.000 pictures to manage, and have already selected over 5000 pictures to be shown without protection. My solution is based on a partial copy of the whole directory tree that contains all public files. To save disk space, these are just symbolic links to the real file in the protected location. Some mod_rewrite magic then takes care of giving the user the impression that all files are in the same location. I set up a small example of my solution, which has this directory structure:

drwxr-xr-x 2 root root 4096  2. Aug 12:03 images
lrwxrwxrwx 1 root root   18  1. Aug 12:05 index.html -> private/index.html
lrwxrwxrwx 1 root root   18  1. Aug 12:05 login.html -> private/login.html
drwxr-xr-x 3 root root 4096  2. Aug 12:03 private

lrwxrwxrwx 1 root root 33  2. Aug 12:00 pleaselogin.png -> ../private/images/pleaselogin.png
lrwxrwxrwx 1 root root 28  2. Aug 12:03 public.png -> ../private/images/public.png

drwxr-xr-x 2 root root 4096  2. Aug 12:00 images
-rw-r--r-- 1 root root  267  2. Aug 12:03 index.html
-rw-r--r-- 1 root root   94  2. Aug 12:01 loggedin.html
-rw-r--r-- 1 root root 2091  2. Aug 12:03 login.html
-rw-r--r-- 1 root root   10 18. Nov 2009  protected.html

-rw-r--r-- 1 root root 4074  2. Aug 11:58 pleaselogin.png
-rw-r--r-- 1 root root 2670  2. Aug 11:58 private.png
-rw-r--r-- 1 root root 2043  2. Aug 11:58 public.png

As you can see, real files only reside in private/, outside of that, only symbolic links exist.

The apache configuration protects the private directory and blends it into the main directory:

   <directory /var/www/nomeata.de/openid-test>
        RewriteEngine On
        # Abuse the login page as an error image
        RewriteCond %{QUERY_STRING} \.(png|jpg)
        RewriteRule ^login.html$ /openid-test/images/pleaselogin.png
        # Ship private files, if they exist, unless public files exist
        RewriteCond  $1 !^private
        RewriteCond  /var/www/nomeata.de/openid-test/$1 !-f
        RewriteCond  /var/www/nomeata.de/openid-test/private/$1 -f
        RewriteRule  ^(.+)$ /openid-test/private/$1
   <directory /var/www/nomeata.de/openid-test/private>
        AuthOpenIDEnabled        On
        AuthOpenIDDBLocation     /var/lib/apache2/mod_auth_openid/mod_auth_openid.db
        AuthOpenIDLoginPage      /openid-test/login.html
        AuthOpenIDTrustRoot      http://nomeata.de
        AuthOpenIDCookiePath     /
        AuthOpenIDCookieLifespan 2592000

A special trick handles the “login page” for protected images: If the login page is requested and the referrer indicates that the user tried to access a .png or .jpg file, apache will instead ship an image containing an error message.

For my photo album I have a small Perl script that, given a directory with a private/ directory therein and a list of rules in form of glob patterns, will symlink matching files and remove symlinks that are not allowed any more.

What’s next?

As you can see, this does not actually protect the content. It only requires the user to authenticate, then everything is visible. To select which OpenIDs are allowed to access which code, some bugs will have to be fixed in mod_auth_openid first. There was little activity there recently, I hope that the project is not dead.


I don't see how this helps. Anyone with an openID can view anything and openIDs are 0 effort to create:

#1 Oh my openid (Homepage) am 2010-08-02T22:20:47+00:00
Correct, that’s what I said under “what’s next”.

Thanks for the link though, I played with the idea of implementing that myself.

Note that it still protects the page from robots.
#2 Joachim Breitner (Homepage) am 2010-08-03T12:12:16+00:00
The normal logic in appache is to have separate authentication and authorization steps. So I would expect (but I didn't check) the OpenID module would just set the authenticated user, which should than be possible to check with any of the mod_authz_* modules. But again, I did't check it actually sets the user.
#3 Jan Hudec am 2010-08-03T05:39:54+00:00
That would be good, but AFAIK this is one of the bugs of mod_auth_openid.
#4 Joachim Breitner (Homepage) am 2010-08-03T12:12:49+00:00

I am commenting here because I believe you could find this interesting:

I recently wrote a lighttpd magnet script to protect static content (via openid, or even oauth and others). I wrote a blog post about it: http://blog.chmd.fr/using-openid-and-the-likes-to-protect-static-content-lighttpd.html

The project is here: http://lighttpd-external-auth.chmd.fr/

I hope this is relevant to your interest!
#5 Christophe-Marie Duquesne (Homepage) am 2013-11-10T21:30:00+00:00

Have something to say? You can post a comment by sending an e-Mail to me at <mail@joachim-breitner.de>, and I will include it here.