Anonymous Authentication

13.1 Overview

It's generally considered good security practice to adopt a deny-by-default where you explicitly specify what is allowed and disallow everything else. Defining what is accessible to unauthenticated users is a similar situation, particularly for web applications. Many sites require that users must be authenticated for anything other than a few URLs (for example the home and login pages). In this case it is easiest to define access configuration attributes for these specific URLs rather than have for every secured resource. Put differently, sometimes it is nice to say ROLE_SOMETHING is required by default and only allow certain exceptions to this rule, such as for login, logout and home pages of an application. You could also omit these pages from the filter chain entirely, thus bypassing the access control checks, but this may be undesirable for other reasons, particularly if the pages behave differently for authenticated users.

This is what we mean by anonymous authentication. Note that there is no real conceptual difference between a user who is anonymously authenticated and an unauthenticated user. Spring Security's anonymous authentication just gives you a more convenient way to configure your access-control attributes. Calls to servlet API calls such as getCallerPrincipal, for example, will still return null even though there is actually an anonymous authentication object in the SecurityContextHolder.

There are other situations where anonymous authentication is useful, such as when an auditing interceptor queries the SecurityContextHolder to identify which principal was responsible for a given operation. Classes can be authored more robustly if they know the SecurityContextHolder always contains an Authentication object, and never null.

13.2 Configuration

Anonymous authentication support is provided automatically when using the HTTP configuration Spring Security 3.0 and can be customized (or disabled) using the <anonymous> element. You don't need to configure the beans described here unless you are using traditional bean configuration.

Three classes that together provide the anonymous authentication feature. AnonymousAuthenticationToken is an implementation of Authentication, and stores the GrantedAuthoritys which apply to the anonymous principal. There is a corresponding AnonymousAuthenticationProvider, which is chained into the ProviderManager so that AnonymousAuthenticationTokens are accepted. Finally, there is an AnonymousAuthenticationFilter, which is chained after the normal authentication mechanisms and automatically adds an AnonymousAuthenticationToken to the SecurityContextHolder if there is no existing Authentication held there. The definition of the filter and authentication provider appears as follows:

<bean id="anonymousAuthFilter"
  <property name="key" value="foobar"/>
  <property name="userAttribute" value="anonymousUser,ROLE_ANONYMOUS"/>

<bean id="anonymousAuthenticationProvider"
  <property name="key" value="foobar"/>

The key is shared between the filter and authentication provider, so that tokens created by the former are accepted by the latter[22]. The userAttribute is expressed in the form of usernameInTheAuthenticationToken,grantedAuthority[,grantedAuthority]. This is the same syntax as used after the equals sign for InMemoryDaoImpl's userMap property.

As explained earlier, the benefit of anonymous authentication is that all URI patterns can have security applied to them. For example:

<bean id="filterSecurityInterceptor"
  <property name="authenticationManager" ref="authenticationManager"/>
  <property name="accessDecisionManager" ref="httpRequestAccessDecisionManager"/>
  <property name="securityMetadata">
      <security:intercept-url pattern='/index.jsp' access='ROLE_ANONYMOUS,ROLE_USER'/>
      <security:intercept-url pattern='/hello.htm' access='ROLE_ANONYMOUS,ROLE_USER'/>
      <security:intercept-url pattern='/logoff.jsp' access='ROLE_ANONYMOUS,ROLE_USER'/>
      <security:intercept-url pattern='/login.jsp' access='ROLE_ANONYMOUS,ROLE_USER'/>
      <security:intercept-url pattern='/**' access='ROLE_USER'/>
    </security:filter-security-metadata-source>" +

13.3 AuthenticationTrustResolver

Rounding out the anonymous authentication discussion is the AuthenticationTrustResolver interface, with its corresponding AuthenticationTrustResolverImpl implementation. This interface provides an isAnonymous(Authentication) method, which allows interested classes to take into account this special type of authentication status. The ExceptionTranslationFilter uses this interface in processing AccessDeniedExceptions. If an AccessDeniedException is thrown, and the authentication is of an anonymous type, instead of throwing a 403 (forbidden) response, the filter will instead commence the AuthenticationEntryPoint so the principal can authenticate properly. This is a necessary distinction, otherwise principals would always be deemed authenticated and never be given an opportunity to login via form, basic, digest or some other normal authentication mechanism.

You will often see the ROLE_ANONYMOUS attribute in the above interceptor configuration replaced with IS_AUTHENTICATED_ANONYMOUSLY, which is effectively the same thing when defining access controls. This is an example of the use of the AuthenticatedVoter which we will see in the authorization chapter. It uses an AuthenticationTrustResolver to process this particular configuration attribute and grant access to anonymous users. The AuthenticatedVoter approach is more powerful, since it allows you to differentiate between anonymous, remember-me and fully-authenticated users. If you don't need this functionality though, then you can stick with ROLE_ANONYMOUS, which will be processed by Spring Security's standard RoleVoter.

[22] The use of the key property should not be regarded as providing any real security here. It is merely a book-keeping exercise. If you are sharing a ProviderManager which contains an AnonymousAuthenticationProvider in a scenario where it is possible for an authenticating client to construct the Authentication object (such as with RMI invocations), then a malicious client could submit an AnonymousAuthenticationToken which it had created itself (with chosen username and authority list). If the key is guessable or can be found out, then the token would be accepted by the anonymous provider. This isn't a problem with normal usage but if you are using RMI you would be best to use a customized ProviderManager which omits the anonymous provider rather than sharing the one you use for your HTTP authentication mechanisms.