Implementing Webauthn - a series of complexities …

I have recently started to work on a rust webauthn library, to allow servers to be implemented. However, in this process I have noticed a few complexities to an API that should have so much promise for improving the state of authentication. So far I can say I have not found any cryptographic issues, but the design of the standard does raise questions about the ability for people to correctly implement Webauthn servers.

Odd structure decisions

Webauth is made up of multiple encoding standards. There is a good reason for this, which is that the json parts are for the webbrowser, and the cbor parts are for ctap and the authenticator device.

However, I quickly noticed an issue in the Attestation Object, as described here . Can you see the problem?

The problem is that the Authenticator Data relies on hand-parsing bytes, and has two structures that are concatenated with no length. This means:

  • You have to hand parse bytes 0 -> 36
  • You then have to CBOR deserialise the Attested Cred Data (if present)
  • You then need to serialise the ACD back to bytes and record that length (if your library doesn’t tell you how long the amount of data is parsed was).
  • Then you need to CBOR deserialise the Extensions.

What’s more insulting about this situation is that the Authenticator Data literally is part of the AttestationObject which is already provided as CBOR! There seems to be no obvious reason for this to require hand-parsing, as the Authenticator Data which will be signature checked, has it’s byte form checked, so you could have the AttestationObject store authDataBytes, then you can CBOR decode the nested structure (allowing the hashing of the bytes later).

There are many risks here because now you have requirements to length check all the parameters which people could get wrong - when CBOR would handle this correctly for you you and provides a good level of correctness that the structure is altered. I also trust the CBOR parser authors to do proper length checks too compared to my crappy byte parsing code!

Confusing Naming Conventions and Layout

The entire standard is full of various names and structures, which are complex, arbitrarily nested and hard to see why they are designed this way. Perhaps it’s a legacy compatability issue? More likely I think it’s object-oriented programming leaking into the specification, which is a paradigm that is not universally applicable.

Regardless, it would be good if the structures were flatter, and named better. There are many confusing structure names throughout the standard, and it can sometimes be hard to identify what you require and don’t require.

Additionally, naming of fields and their use, uses abbrivations to save bandwidth, but makes it hard to follow. I did honestly get confused about the difference between rp (the relying party name) and rp_id, where the challenge provides rp, and the browser response use rp_id.

It can be easy to point fingers and say “ohh William, you’re just not reading it properly and are stupid”. Am I? Or is it that humans find it really hard to parse data like this, and our brains are better suited to other tasks? Human factors are important to consider in specification design both in naming of values, consistency of their use, and appropriate communication as to how they are used properly. I’m finding this to be a barrier to correct implementation now (especially as the signature verification section is very fragmented and hard to follow …).

Crypto Steps seem complex or too static

There are a lot of possible choices here - there are 6 attestation formats and 5 attestation types. As some formats only do some types, there are then 11 verification paths you need to implement for all possible authenticators. I think this level of complexity will lead to mistakes over a large number of possible code branch paths, or lacking support for some device types which people may not have access to.

I think it may have been better to limit the attestation format to one, well defined format, and within that to limit the attestation types available to suit a more broad range of uses.

It feels a lot like these choice are part of some internal Google/MS/Other internal decisions for high security devices, or custom deviges, which will be internally used. It’s leaked into the spec and it raises questions about the ability for people to meaningfully implement the full specification for all possible devices, let alone correctly.

Some parts even omit details in a cryptographic operation, such as here in verification step 2, it doesn’t even list what format the bytes are. (Hint: it’s DER x509).

What would I change?

  • Be more specific

There should be no assumptions about format types, what is in bytes. Be verbose, detailed and without ambiguity.

  • Use type safe, length checked structures.

I would probably make the entire thing a single CBOR structure which contains other nested structures as required. We should never have to hand-parse bytes in 2019, especially when there is a great deal of evidence to show the risks of expecting people to do this.

  • Don’t assume object orientation

I think simpler, flatter structures in the json/cbor would have helped, and been clearer to implement, rather than the really complex maze of types currently involved.


Despite these concerns, I still think webauthn is a really good standard, and I really do think it will become the future of authentication. I’m hoping to help make that a reality in opensource and I hope that in the future I can contribute to further development and promotion of webauthn.

The Case for Ethics in OpenSource

For a long time there have been incidents in technology which have caused negative effects on people - from leaks of private data, to interfaces that are not accessible, to even issues like UI’s doing things that may try to subvert a persons intent. I’m sure there are many more: and we could be here all day listing the various issues that exist in technology, from small to great.

The theme however is that these issues continue to happen: we continue to make decisions in applications that can have consequences to humans.

Software is pointless without people. People create software, people deploy software, people interact with software, and even software indirectly can influence people’s lives. At every layer people exist, and all software will affect them in some ways.

I think that today, we have made a lot of progress in our communities around the deployment of code’s of conduct. These are great, and really help us to discuss the decisions and actions we take within our communities - with the people who create the software. I would like this to go further, where we can have a framework to discuss the effect of software on people that we write: the people that deploy, interact with and are influenced by our work.


I’m not a specialist in ethics or morality: I’m not a registered or certified engineer in the legal sense. Finally, like all humans I am a product of my experiences which causes all my view points to be biased through the lens of my experience.

Additionally, I specialise in Identity Management software, so many of the ideas and issues I have encountered are really specific to this domain - which means I may overlook the issues in other areas. I also have a “security” mindset which also factors into my decisions too.

Regardless I hope that this is a starting point to recieve further input and advice from others, and a place where we can begin to improve.

The Problem

Let’s consider some issues and possible solutions in work that I’m familiar with - identity management software. Lets list a few “features”. (Please don’t email me about how these are wrong, I know they are …)

  • Storing usernames as first and last name
  • Storing passwords in cleartext.
  • Deleting an account sets a flag to mark deletion
  • Names are used as the primary key
  • We request sex on signup
  • To change account details, you have to use a command line tool

Now “technically”, none of these decisions are incorrect at all. There is literally no bad technical decision here, and everything is “technically correct” (not always the best kind of correct).

What do we want to achieve?

I don’t believe it’s correct to dictate a set of rules that people should follow. People will be fatigued, and will find the process too hard. We need to trust that people can learn and want to improve. Instead I believe it’s important we provide important points that people should be able to consider in a discussion around the development of software. The same way we discuss technical implementation details, we should discuss potential human impact in every change we have. To realise this, we need a short list of important factors that relate to humans.

I think the following points are important to consider when designing software. These relate to general principles which I have learnt and researched.

People should be respected to have:

  • Informed consent
  • Choice over how they are identified
  • Ability to be forgotten
  • Individual Autonomy
  • Free from Harmful Discrimination
  • Privacy
  • Ability to meaningfully access and use software

There is already some evidence in research papers to show that there are strong reasons for moral positions in software. For example, to prevent harm to come to people, to respect peoples autonomy and to conform to privacy legislation ( source ).

Let’s apply these

Given our set of “features”, lets now discuss these with the above points in mind.

  • Storing usernames as first and last name

This point clearly is in violation of the ability to choose how people are identified - some people may only have a single name, some may have multiple family names. On a different level this also violates the harmful discrimination rule due to the potential to disrespect individuals with cultures that have different name schemes compared to western/English societies.

A better way to approach this is “displayName” as a freetext UTF8 case sensitive field, and to allow substring search over the content (rather than attempting to sort by first/last name which also has a stack of issues).

  • Storing passwords in cleartext.

This one is a violation of privacy, that we risk the exposure of a password which may have been reused (we can’t really stop password reuse, we need to respect human behaviour). Not only that some people may assume we DO hash these correctly, so we actually are violating informed consent as we didn’t disclose the method of how we store these details.

A better thing here is to hash the password, or at least to disclose how it will be stored and used.

  • Deleting an account sets a flag to mark deletion

This violates the ability to be forgotten, because we aren’t really deleting the account. It also breaks informed consent, because we are being “deceptive” about what our software is actually doing compared to the intent of the users request

A better thing is to just delete the account, or if not possible, delete all user data and leave a tombstone inplace that represents “an account was here, but no details associated”.

  • Names are used as the primary key

This violates choice over identification, especially for women who have a divorce, or individuals who are transitioning or just people who want to change their name in general. The reason for the name change doesn’t matter - what matters is we need to respect peoples right to identification.

A better idea is to use UUID/ID numbers as a primary key, and have name able to be changed at any point in time.

  • To change account details, you have to use a command line tool

This violates a users ability to meaningfully access and use software - remember, people come from many walks of life and all have different skill sets, but using command line tools is not something we can universally expect.

A proper solution here is at minimum a web/graphical self management portal that is easy to access and follows proper UX/UI design rules, and for a business deploying, a service desk with humans involved that can support and help people change details on their account on their behalf if the person is unable to self-support via the web service.


I think that OpenSource should aim to have a code of ethics - the same way we have a code of conduct to guide our behaviour internally to a project, we should have a framework to promote discussion of people’s rights that use, interact with and are affected by our work. We should not focus on technical matters only, but should be promoting people at the core of all our work. Every decision we make is not just technical, but social.

I’m sure that there are more points that could be considere than what I have listed here: I’d love to hear feedback to william at Thanks!

Using Rust Generics to Enforce DB Record State

In a database, entries go through a lifecycle which represents what attributes they have have, db record keys, and if they have conformed to schema checking.

I’m currently working on a (private in 2019, public in july 2019) project which is a NoSQL database writting in Rust. To help us manage the correctness and lifecycle of database entries, I have been using advice from the Rust Embedded Group’s Book.

As I have mentioned in the past, state machines are a great way to design code, so let’s plot out the state machine we have for Entries:

Entry State Machine

The lifecyle is:

  • A new entry is submitted by the user for creation
  • We schema check that entry
  • If it passes schema, we commit it and assign internal ID’s
  • When we search the entry, we retrieve it by internal ID’s
  • When we modify the entry, we need to recheck it’s schema before we commit it back
  • When we delete, we just remove the entry.

This leads to a state machine of:

             (create operation)
            [ New + Invalid ] -(schema check)-> [ New + Valid ]
                                               (send to backend)
                                                      v    v-------------\
[Commited + Invalid] <-(modify operation)- [ Commited + Valid ]          |
          |                                          ^   \       (write to backend)
          \--------------(schema check)-------------/     ---------------/

This is a bit rough - The version on my whiteboard was better :)

The main observation is that we are focused only on the commitability and validty of entries - not about where they are or if the commit was a success.

Entry Structs

So to make these states work we have the following structs:

struct EntryNew;
struct EntryCommited;

struct EntryValid;
struct EntryInvalid;

struct Entry<STATE, VALID> {
    state: STATE,
    valid: VALID,
    // Other db junk goes here :)

We can then use these to establish the lifecycle with functions (similar) to this:

impl Entry<EntryNew, EntryInvalid> {
    fn new() -> Self {
        Entry {
            state: EntryNew,
            valid: EntryInvalid,


impl<STATE> Entry<STATE, EntryInvalid> {
    fn validate(self, schema: Schema) -> Result<Entry<STATE, EntryValid>, ()> {
        if schema.check(self) {
            Ok(Entry {
                state: self.state,
                valid: EntryValid,
        } else {

    fn modify(&mut self, ...) {
        // Perform any modifications on the entry you like, only works
        // on invalidated entries.

impl<STATE> Entry<STATE, EntryValid> {
    fn seal(self) -> Entry<EntryCommitted, EntryValid> {
        // Assign internal id's etc
        Entry {
            state: EntryCommited,
            valid: EntryValid,

    fn compare(&self, other: Entry<STATE, EntryValid>) -> ... {
        // Only allow compares on schema validated/normalised
        // entries, so that checks don't have to be schema aware
        // as the entries are already in a comparable state.

impl Entry<EntryCommited, EntryValid> {
    fn invalidate(self) -> Entry<EntryCommited, EntryInvalid> {
        // Invalidate an entry, to allow modifications to be performed
        // note that modifications can only be applied once an entry is created!
        Entry {
            state: self.state,
            valid: EntryInvalid,

What this allows us to do importantly is to control when we apply search terms, send entries to the backend for storage and more. Benefit is this is compile time checked, so you can never send an entry to a backend that is not schema checked, or run comparisons or searches on entries that aren’t schema checked, and you can even only modify or delete something once it’s created. For example other parts of the code now have:

impl BackendStorage {
    // Can only create if no db id's are assigned, IE it must be new.
    fn create(&self, ..., entry: Entry<EntryNew, EntryValid>) -> Result<...> {

    // Can only modify IF it has been created, and is validated.
    fn modify(&self, ..., entry: Entry<EntryCommited, EntryValid>) -> Result<...> {

    // Can only delete IF it has been created and committed.
    fn delete(&self, ..., entry: Entry<EntryCommited, EntryValid>) -> Result<...> {

impl Filter<STATE> {
    // Can only apply filters (searches) if the entry is schema checked. This has an
    // important behaviour, where we can schema normalise. Consider a case-insensitive
    // type, we can schema-normalise this on the entry, then our compare can simply
    // be a, because we assert both entries *must* have been through
    // the normalisation routines!
    fn apply_filter(&self, ..., entry: &Entry<STATE, EntryValid>) -> Result<bool, ...> {

Using this with Serde?

I have noticed that when we serialise the entry, that this causes the valid/state field to not be compiled away - because they have to be serialised, regardless of the empty content meaning the compiler can’t eliminate them.

A future cleanup will be to have a serialised DBEntry form such as the following:

struct DBEV1 {
    // entry data here

enum DBEntryVersion {

struct DBEntry {
    data: DBEntryVersion

impl From<Entry<EntryNew, EntryValid>> for DBEntry {
    fn from(e: Entry<EntryNew, EntryValid>) -> Self {
        // assign db id's, and return a serialisable entry.

impl From<Entry<EntryCommited, EntryValid>> for DBEntry {
    fn from(e: Entry<EntryCommited, EntryValid>) -> Self {
        // Just translate the entry to a serialisable form

This way we still have the zero-cost state on Entry, but we are able to move to a versioned seralised structure, and we minimise the run time cost.

Testing the Entry

To help with testing, I needed to be able to shortcut and move between anystate of the entry so I could quickly make fake entries, so I added some unsafe methods:

unsafe fn to_new_valid(self, Entry<EntryNew, EntryInvalid>) -> {
    Entry {
        state: EntryNew,
        valid: EntryValid

These allow me to setup and create small unit tests where I may not have a full backend or schema infrastructure, so I can test specific aspects of the entries and their lifecycle. It’s limited to test runs only, and marked unsafe. It’s not “technically” memory unsafe, but it’s unsafe from the view of “it could absolutely mess up your database consistency guarantees” so you have to really want it.


Using statemachines like this, really helped me to clean up my code, make stronger assertions about the correctness of what I was doing for entry lifecycles, and means that I have more faith when I and future-contributors will work on the code base that we’ll have compile time checks to ensure we are doing the right thing - to prevent data corruption and inconsistency.

Debugging MacOS bluetooth audio stutter

I was noticing that audio to my bluetooth headphones from my iPhone was always flawless, but I started to noticed stutter and drops from my MBP. After exhausting some basic ideas, I was stumped.

To the duck duck go machine, and I searched for issues with bluetooth known issues. Nothing appeared.

However, I then decided to debug the issue - thankfully there was plenty of advice on this matter. Press shift + option while clicking bluetooth in the menu-bar, and then you have a debug menu. You can also open and search for “bluetooth” to see all the bluetooth related logs.

I noticed that when the audio stutter occured that the following pattern was observed.

default     11:25:45.840532 +1000   wirelessproxd   About to scan for type: 9 - rssi: -90 - payload: <00000000 00000000 00000000 00000000 00000000 0000> - mask: <00000000 00000000 00000000 00000000 00000000 0000> - peers: 0
default     11:25:45.840878 +1000   wirelessproxd   Scan options changed: YES
error       11:25:46.225839 +1000   bluetoothaudiod Error sending audio packet: 0xe00002e8
error       11:25:46.225899 +1000   bluetoothaudiod Too many outstanding packets. Drop packet of 8 frames (total drops:451 total sent:60685 percentDropped:0.737700) Outstanding:17

There was always a scan, just before the stutter initiated. So what was scanning?

I searched for the error related to packets, and there were a lot of false leads. From weird apps to dodgy headphones. In this case I could eliminate both as the headphones worked with other devices, and I don’t have many apps installed.

So I went back and thought about what macOS services could be the problem, and I found that airdrop would scan periodically for other devices to send and recieve files. Disabling Airdrop from the sharing menu in System Prefrences cleared my audio right up.

GDB autoloads for 389 DS

I’ve been writing a set of extensions to help debug 389-ds a bit easier. Thanks to the magic of python, writing GDB extensions is really easy.

On OpenSUSE, when you start your DS instance under GDB, all of the extensions are automatically loaded. This will help make debugging a breeze.

zypper in 389-ds gdb
gdb /usr/sbin/ns-slapd
GNU gdb (GDB; openSUSE Tumbleweed) 8.2
(gdb) ds-
ds-access-log  ds-backtrace
(gdb) set args -d 0 -D /etc/dirsrv/slapd-<instance name>
(gdb) run

All the extensions are under the ds- namespace, so they are easy to find. There are some new ones on the way, which I’ll discuss here too:


As DS is a multithreaded process, it can be really hard to find the active thread involved in a problem. So we provided a command that knows how to fold duplicated stacks, and to highlight idle threads that you can (generally) skip over.

Thread 37 (LWP 70054))
Thread 36 (LWP 70053))
Thread 35 (LWP 70052))
Thread 34 (LWP 70051))
Thread 33 (LWP 70050))
Thread 32 (LWP 70049))
Thread 31 (LWP 70048))
Thread 30 (LWP 70047))
Thread 29 (LWP 70046))
Thread 28 (LWP 70045))
Thread 27 (LWP 70044))
Thread 26 (LWP 70043))
Thread 25 (LWP 70042))
Thread 24 (LWP 70041))
Thread 23 (LWP 70040))
Thread 22 (LWP 70039))
Thread 21 (LWP 70038))
Thread 20 (LWP 70037))
Thread 19 (LWP 70036))
Thread 18 (LWP 70035))
Thread 17 (LWP 70034))
Thread 16 (LWP 70033))
Thread 15 (LWP 70032))
Thread 14 (LWP 70031))
Thread 13 (LWP 70030))
Thread 12 (LWP 70029))
Thread 11 (LWP 70028))
Thread 10 (LWP 70027))
#0  0x00007ffff65db03c in pthread_cond_wait@@GLIBC_2.3.2 () at /lib64/
#1  0x00007ffff66318b0 in PR_WaitCondVar () at /usr/lib64/
#2  0x00000000004220e0 in [IDLE THREAD] connection_wait_for_new_work (pb=0x608000498020, interval=4294967295) at /home/william/development/389ds/ds/ldap/servers/slapd/connection.c:970
#3  0x0000000000425a31 in connection_threadmain () at /home/william/development/389ds/ds/ldap/servers/slapd/connection.c:1536
#4  0x00007ffff6637484 in None () at /usr/lib64/
#5  0x00007ffff65d4fab in start_thread () at /lib64/
#6  0x00007ffff6afc6af in clone () at /lib64/

This example shows that there are 17 idle threads (look at frame 2) here, that all share the same trace.


The access log is buffered before writing, so if you have a coredump, and want to see the last few events before they were written to disk, you can use this to display the content:

(gdb) ds-access-log
===== BEGIN ACCESS LOG =====
$2 = 0x7ffff3c3f800 "[03/Apr/2019:10:58:42.836246400 +1000] conn=1 fd=64 slot=64 connection from to
[03/Apr/2019:10:58:42.837199400 +1000] conn=1 op=0 BIND dn=\"\" method=128 version=3
[03/Apr/2019:10:58:42.837694800 +1000] conn=1 op=0 RESULT err=0 tag=97 nentries=0 etime=0.0001200300 dn=\"\"
[03/Apr/2019:10:58:42.838881800 +1000] conn=1 op=1 SRCH base=\"\" scope=2 filter=\"(objectClass=*)\" attrs=ALL
[03/Apr/2019:10:58:42.839107600 +1000] conn=1 op=1 RESULT err=32 tag=101 nentries=0 etime=0.0001070800
[03/Apr/2019:10:58:42.840687400 +1000] conn=1 op=2 UNBIND
[03/Apr/2019:10:58:42.840749500 +1000] conn=1 op=2 fd=64 closed - U1
", '\276' <repeats 3470 times>

At the end the line that repeats shows the log is “empty” in that segment of the buffer.


This command shows the in-memory entry. It can be common to see Slapi_Entry * pointers in the codebase, so being able to display these is really helpful to isolate what’s occuring on the entry. Your first argument should be the Slapi_Entry pointer.

(gdb) ds-entry-print ec
Display Slapi_Entry: cn=config
cn: config
objectClass: top
objectClass: extensibleObject
objectClass: nsslapdConfig
nsslapd-schemadir: /opt/dirsrv/etc/dirsrv/slapd-standalone1/schema
nsslapd-lockdir: /opt/dirsrv/var/lock/dirsrv/slapd-standalone1
nsslapd-tmpdir: /tmp
nsslapd-certdir: /opt/dirsrv/etc/dirsrv/slapd-standalone1