BrowserID vs DDOS

How BrowserID saved the RDFa Test Suite from a DDOS (Distributed Denial of Service Attack).

This article is the third in a three-part series on implementing the [RDFa

Test Suite]( The [first


discussed the use of Sinatra, Backbone.js and Bootstrap.js in

creating the test harness. The [second


discussed the use of JSON-LD. In this article, we focus on our use of

BrowserID in responding to a Distributed Denial of Service Attack


RDFa Test Suite

Working on the updated RDFa Test Suite has really been a lot of fun.

It was a great opportunity to explore new Web application technologies,

such as Bootstrap.js and Backbone.js. The test suite is a

single-page web application which uses a Sinatra based service to run

individual test cases.

The site was becoming stable, and we were starting to flesh out more test

cases for odd corner cases, when the site started to not respond. [Manu

Sporny](, who’s company [Digital

Bazaar]( is kindly donating hosting for the web

site, noticed that there were a number of Ruby processes that were

consuming available Ruby workers, and causing new requests to

block. The service is fairly resource intensive, as it must invoke an

external processor and run a SPARQL query over the results for each

test. It seemed as if the site was being hammered by a large number of

overzealous search crawlers! Naturally, we put a robots.txt in place,

expecting that conforming search engines would detect the site’s crawl

preferences and back off, but that didn’t happen. Upon further examination

of the server logs, we noted requests were streaming in from all over the

world! Clearly, we were under attack. (Who might wish ill of the RDFa

development effort? Who knows, but most likely this was just an anonymous,

and not specifically malicious attack).

My first thought was to make use a secret api token, configured into the

server and the web app, but that didn’t really do the trick either; it

seemed that modern day malware actually just executes the JavaScript, so

it picks up the API key naturally!

BrowserID to the Rescue!

Okay, how about authentication? It’s typically a pain, and we were

reluctant to put up barriers in front of people who might want to test

their own processors or see how listed processors perform. The two current

contenders are WebID and BrowserID.

WebID has the laudable goal of combining personally maintained profile

information with SSL certificates (it was previously known as FOAF+SSL).

Basically, It’s a mechanism to allow users to use a profile page as

their identity. This could come off of their blog, Facebook, Twitter or

other social networking site. By configuring an SSL certificate into the

browser and pointing to their profile page, a service can determine that

the profile page actually belongs to the user. (There’s much more to it,

you can read more in the [WebID

Spec]( A key advantage here

is that the service now has access to all of the self-asserted information

the user want’s to provide about themselves as defined in their profile

page, such as foaf:name, foaf:knows, and so forth. The chief downside

is that the common source of existing user identities in the world haven’t

bought into this, and there’s a competing solution that offers similar


BrowserID is a Mozilla initiative to enable people with e-mail

addresses to use those e-mails to login to websites, kind of like

[OpenID][] – only more secure. Basically, as I understand it, a service

wanting to support this would include the BrowserID JavaScript client

code in their application and use a simple Sign In button that invokes

this code. That sends a request off the the identity provider (IDP) to

authenticate the user, which has probably already happened in the past and

maintained in a cookie. The IDP then sends a response which invokes a

callback. The client then does a call back to the service to complete the

login passing the assertion.

The beauty is, using a tool such as the sinatra-browserid Ruby gem,

this becomes dirt simple! Basically, on the API side, put in a call to

authorized? to determine if the user is authorized. If not, either

direct them to a login screen, or in the case of the RDFa Test Suite,

place an informational message telling them why we need them to login, and

identify the BrowserID button at the top of the page.

In the principle entry-point to the test suite on the service side is

/test-suite/check-test/:version/:suite/:num. The only real change to

this method was to check for authorization before performing the test.

# Run a test
get '/test-suite/check-test/:version/:suite/:num' do
  return [403, "Unauthorized access is not allowed"] unless authorized?

  # Get the SPARQL query
  source ="../tests/#{num}.sparql"))

  # Do host-language specific modifications of the SPARQL query.
  query = SPARQL.parse(source)

  # Invoke the processor and retrieve results, parsed into an RDF graph
  graph = RDF::Graph.load(params['rdfa-extractor'] + test_path(version, suite, num, format))

  # Run the query
  result = query.execute(graph)

  # Return results as JSON
  {:status => result}.to_json

In the banner, we add a little bit of Haml:

  - if email
      Logged in as
        = email
      %a{:href => '/test-suite/logout'}
  - else
    = render_login_button

When the page is returned, the email variable is set if the user is

authorized, so they’ll see the email address if they’ve authenticated, and

a login button otherwise. The render_login_button has handled entirely

by sinatra-browserid; no muss, no fuss!

The only other thing to do is to not show the test cases in the test

suite, unless the user has authenticated, which we can tell because

$("") won’t be empty. In our application.js, we use this to

either show the tests, or an explanation:

// If logged in, create primary test collection and view
if ($("").length > 0) {
  this.testList = new TestCollection([], {version: this.version});
  this.testListView = new TestListView({model: this.testList});
} else {
  this.unauthorizedView = new UnauthorizedView();

That’s pretty much all there is too it. The only complication I faced is

that, when developing with shotgun, the session ID is changed with each

invocation, so it wasn’t remembering the login. By fixing the session

secret this problem went away. Total time from discovery of the problem to

deployed solution: about 1 hour. Not too bad.

It’s important to note that the RDFa Test Suite is stateless, and we

don’t really need any personal information; we don’t collect information

anywhere, even in our logs. BrowserID basically becomes a gate keeper

to help ward off abuse. It imposes a very low barrier of entry, so it

doesn’t interfere with people using the site anyway they choose.

I do miss other user asserted information, such as the user’s name and

so-forth. OpenID, another single-signon initiative

that has lost momentum lately, provides a [Simple Registration


add-on that allows users to assert simple information such as nickname,

mail, fullname and so forth. IMO, the right way to do this is with

something like FOAF or the Person class. Perhaps

BrowserID will provide something like this in the future.