Unpacking the Access Control Systems in Drupal and Elgg

Elgg’s access control system, which determines what content a user can view, is somewhat limited and very opinionated, with several use cases—access control lists, friends—baked into the core system. In hopes of making this cleaner and more powerful, I’ve been studying Drupal’s access system. (Caveat: My knowledge in this area of Drupal comes mainly from reading code, schema, docs, and two great overviews by Mike Potter and Larry Garfield, so please chime in if I run off the rails.) 


Drupal’s system also influences update and delete permissions, but here I’m only interested in the “view” permission. Also, although Drupal has hook_node_access()—a procedural calculation of permissions for a node (like an Elgg entity) already in memory—I’m focusing on the systems that craft SQL conditions to fetch only nodes visible to the user. This is critical to get right in the SQL, because if your access control relies on code, you can never predict the number of queries required to generate a list for browsing. In this area, Drupal’s realms/grants API (hook_node_grants()is extremely powerful.

Realms and Grants in a Nutshell

At a particular time, a user exists in zero or more “realms”; more or less arbitrary labels which may be based on user attributes, roles, associations, the current system state, time…anything. Each realm has been granted (via DB rows) the permission to view individual nodes. So to query, we build up a user’s list of realms, this is baked into the query, and the DB returns nodes matching at least one realm.

E.g., at 2:30 PM today, an anonymous visitor might be in the realms (public, time_afternoon, season_winter*), whereas Mary, who logged in, might exist in the realms (public, logged_in, user_123, friendedby_345, role_developer, team_A, is_over_30, time_afternoon, season_winter). So Mary will likely see more nodes because her queries provide more opportunity to match grant rows. *Note these realms are made up examples.

Clearly this is very expressive, but Drupal (maybe for better) doesn’t provide many features out-of-the-box, so (maybe for worse) doesn’t build in many realms; the API is mostly a framework for implementing an access control system on top of added features. Contrib modules appear up to the task of providing realms based on all kinds of things (groups, taxonomies, associations with particular nodes), but it’s hard to collaboratively build an access control system, so these modules apparently don’t work well with each other and non-access modules must be careful to tap into the appropriate systems to keep nodes protected.

(Implementation oddities: The grants are done in the node_access table, which probably should’ve been called “node_grants”, especially because this table is only somewhat related to the hook called “node_access“. Less seriously—depending on your system size—each realm name (VARCHAR) is duplicated for every node/realm combination, so there’s some opportunity for normalization.)


If you squint, Elgg’s system is a bit similar. Each entity has an “access level” (a realm), with values like “public”, “logged in”, “private”, “friends”, or values representing access control lists (a group or a subset of your friends like a Google+ circle).

That an entity can have only one realm is of course the biggest (and most painful) difference, but also the implementation is significantly complicated by some realms needing to map to different tables. E.g. Elgg has to ensure “friends” maps to rows in an entities relationship table based upon the owner of the entity, while also mapping to the ACL table.

I imagine a lot of these differences come from Drupal being old as time with a lot bigger API reboots, and because Elgg’s access system was targeted to meet the needs of features like friends and user groups, which were built-in from the beginning. It’s hard to predict which schema results in faster queries, and will depend on the use case, but Drupal queries I would guess are easier to generate and safer to alter.


I think in the long run Elgg would be wise to adopt a realms/grants schema, though I would probably suggest normalizing with a separate “realms” table to hold the name and other useful bits. Elgg group ACLs and friend collections would map directly into realms, but friend relationships would need to be duplicated into realms just like groups have an ACL distinct from the membership relationship. Really I think a grants table could completely replace Elgg’s “entity_relationships” table, since both tables just map one entity to others with a name.

As for Drupal, I think the docs could more clearly describe realms and grants (unless I’ve totally got this wrong). I’m less sure of the quality of the API that populates/maintains the tables; it looks like the hooks are pretty low-level ways of asking “would you like to dump some rows into node_access?” and it’s not clear how much of the table must be rebuilt or how often this happens.

String Subtypes for Safer Web Programming

Valid HTML markup involves several different contexts and escaping rules, yet many APIs give no precise indication of which context their string return values are escaped for, or how strings should be escaped before being passed in (let’s not even get into character encoding). Most programming languages only have a single String type, so there’s a strong urge to document function with @param string and/or @return string and move on to other work, but this is rarely sufficient information.

Look at the documentation for WordPress’s get_the_title:


Post title. …

If the title is Stan "The Man" & Capt. <Awesome>, will & and < be escaped? Will the quotes be escaped? “string” leaves these important questions unanswered. This isn’t meant to slight WordPress’s documentation team (they at least frequently give you example code from which you can guess the escaping model); the problem is endemic to web software.

So for better web security—and developer sanity—I think we need a shared vocabulary of string subtypes which can supply this missing metadata at least via mention or annotation in the documentation (if not via actual types).

Proposed Subtypes and Content Models

A basic set of four might help quite a bit. Each should have its own URL to explain its content model in detail, and how it should be handled:

Arbitrary characters not escaped for HTML in any way, possibly including nulls/control characters. If a string’s subtype is not explicit, for safety it should be assumed to contain this content.
Well-formed HTML markup matching the serialization of a DocumentFragment
Markup containing no literal less-than sign (U+003C) characters (e.g. for output inside title/textarea elements)
TaglessMarkup containing no literal apostrophe (U+0027) or quotation mark (U+0022) characters, for output as a single/double-quoted attribute value

What would these really give us?

These subtypes cannot make promises about what they contain, but are rather for making explicit what they should contain. It’s still up to developers to correctly handle input, character encoding, filtering, and string operations to fulfill those contracts.

The work left to do is to define how these subtypes should be handled and in what contexts they can be output as-is, and what escaping needs to be applied in other contexts.

Obvious Limitations

For the sake of simplicity, these subtypes shouldn’t attempt to address notions of input filtering or whether a string should be considered “clean”, “tainted”, “unsafe”, etc. A type/annotation convention like this should be used to assist—not replace—experienced developers practicing secure coding methods.