In a security system, On Behalf Of is a vastly underutilized concept. I created that for the first time in 2007, in a project that spurred the creation of Rhino Security. On Behalf Of allows another user to assume the mantle of another user. From the authorization system, once you activate On Behalf Of, you are that other user. That means that you have all the access rights (and limitations) of that user.
Why is this useful?
- On Behalf Of gives a help desk operator a very quick way to reproduce a bug that a user run into. Usually those bugs are things like “why can’t I see product Foo”, or “I run into a bug in Order #823838”. Those bugs can only be reproduced when the help desk operator is running within the security context of the user.
- On Behalf Of represent how the real world work. Imagine a Team Leader that takes a vacation. For the duration of the vacation, there is someone else that assumes that Team Leader role on a temporary basis. On Behalf Of allows that someone to do the required work, in the the context of the Team Leader, which allows her to perform operations that she would otherwise may not be able to do.
On Behalf Of has important implications on auditing. In most systems where auditing plays a role, the user who perform the action is just as important as the action that was taken. On Behalf Of integrates with the auditing system, to indicate not only who actually did the operation (the end user), but also what user that operation was On Behalf Of. This is important, because it avoid “impossible” audit entries later on, where either “I was in vacation that time, I couldn’t have done it” or “I never had permissions to do this, there is a bug in the system” might crop up.
It is important to note that most systems where On Behalf Of is used have a sophisticated security rules. At that point, system administrators are more akin to Windows’ Administrators than Unix’s Root. In Unix, if you are root, you can do whatever you like. In Windows, if you are Administrator, you can do almost everything that you like. A typical example is that as an administrator on Windows, you can’t read another’s user files without leaving a mark that you can’t remove (changing ownership), but there are others.
You can think about On Behalf Of as an extension to this, we want to act as another user, but we have to know that we did. That is why you want to be able to pull the operations made by users acting On Behalf Of other users from the Auditing System easily. In fact, when running On Behalf Of, your audit level is much increased, because we need to track what sort of operations you made, even operations that are normally below the audit level of the system (viewing an entity you otherwise had no way of accessing, for example).
From authorization perspective, the actual mechanics are pretty simple, instead of passing the actual user to the security system, you pass the user that we execute operations On Behalf Of.
However, the security system does need to be aware of On Behalf Of, because there are some operations that you cannot perform On Behalf Of someone else. For example, while I may be authorized to act On Behalf on another Team Leader, it is not possible for me to fire a team member while operating On Behalf Of Team Leader. Firing someone is a decision that can be made only by that person direct manager, not by someone acting On Behalf Of. This is a business decision, mind you, to define the set of operations that may be performed On Behalf Of (usually most of them) and the few critical ones that you mustn’t.
As you can imagine, there is a great deal to abuse with this feature, so for the most part, it is strictly limited. Usually it is active for system administrators only, but very often, there are both temporary and permanent set of conditions where On Behalf Of is enabled.
For example, an exec is always able to act On Behalf OF his captain. And we already discussed covering another Team Leader when they are sick / vacationing / etc.
On Behalf Of is a powerful feature, but it requires understanding from the users, it has the potential to be looked at as a security hole, even though it is just a reflection of how we work in real life. And the implications if the users expect some level of privacy in the system are huge. A large part of implementing On Behalf OF correctly isn’t in the technical details, it is in the way you build /document / sale it to the users.