9.1. What is a secure communication?

The first thing we have to ask ourselves is: Well, just what is a secure communication? Newcomers to the field of computer security tend to think that a 'secure communication' is simply any communication where data is encrypted. However, security encompasses much more than simply encrypting and decrypting data.

9.1.1. The Three Pillars of a Secure Communication

Most authors consider the three pillars of a secure communication (or 'secure conversation') to be privacy, integrity, and authentication. Ideally, a secure conversation should feature all three pillars, but this is not always so (sometimes it might not even be desirable). Different security scenarios might require different combination of features (e.g. "only privacy", "privacy and integrity, but no authentication", "only integrity", etc.).


You might stumble upon books and URLs which also talk about 'non-repudiation', a feature which some authors consider the 'fourth pillar' of secure conversations. Since non-repudiation never comes up in Globus literature, and because most authors tend to simply consider it a part of 'authentication', we've chosen not to include it in this chapter.


A secure conversation should be private. In other words, only the sender and the receiver should be able to understand the conversation. If someone eavesdrops on the communication, the eavesdropper should be unable to make any sense out of it. This is generally achieved by encryption/decryption algorithms.

For example, imagine we want to transmit the message "INVOKE METHOD ADD", and we want to make sure that, if a third party intercepts that message (e.g. using a network sniffer), they won't be able to understand that message. We could use a trivial encryption algorithm which simply changes each letter for the next one in the alphabet. The encrypted message would be "JOWPLFANFUIPEABEE" (let's suppose 'A' comes after the whitespace character). Unless the third party knew the encryption algorithm we're using, the message would sound like complete gibberish. On the other hand, the receiving end would know the decryption algorithm beforehand (change each letter for the previous one in the alphabet) and would therefore be able to understand the message. Of course, this method is trivial, and encryption algorithms nowadays are much more sophisticated. We'll look at some of those algorithms in the next section.


A secure communication should ensure the integrity of the transmitted message. This means that the receiving end must be able to know for sure that the message he is receiving is exactly the one that the transmitting end sent him. Take into account that a malicious user could intercept a communication with the intent of modifying its contents, not with the intent of eavesdropping.

'Traditional' encryption algorithms don't protect against these kind of attacks. For example, consider the simple algorithm we've just seen. If a third party used a network sniffer to change the encrypted message to "JAMJAMJAMJAMJAMJA", the receiving end would apply the decryption algorithm and think the message is "I LI LI LI LI LI ". Although the malicious third party might have no idea what the message contains, he is nonetheless able to modify it (this is relatively easy to do with certain network sniffing tools). This confuses the receiving end, which would think there has been an error in the communication. Public-key encryption algorithms (which we'll see shortly) do protect against this kind of attacks (the receiving end has a way of knowing if the message it received is, in fact, the one the transmitting end sent and, therefore, not modified).


A secure communication should ensure that the parties involved in the communication are who they claim to be. In other words, we should be protected from malicious users who try to impersonate one of the parties in the secure conversation. Again, this is relatively easy to do with some network sniffing tools. However, modern encryption algorithms also protect against this kind of attacks.

9.1.2. Authorization

Another important concept in computer security, although not generally considered a 'pillar' of secure communications, is the concept of authorization. Simply put, authorization refers to mechanisms that decide when a user is authorized to perform a certain task. Authorization is related to authentication because we generally need to make sure that a user is who he claims to be (authentication) before we can make a decision on whether he can (or cannot) perform a certain task (authorization).

For example, once we've ascertained that a user is a member of the Mathematics Department, we would then allow him to access all the MathServices. However, we might deny him access to other services that are not related to his department (BiologyService, ChemistryService, etc.)

[Tip]Authorization vs. Authentication

It is very easy to confuse authentication and authorization, not so much because they are related (you generally need to perform authentication on a user to make authorization decisions on that user), but because they sound alike! ("auth...ation") This is somewhat aggravated by the fact that many people tend to shorten both words as "auth" (especially in programming code). At this point, you might be saying to yourself: "That's pretty silly, they're different concepts... I'm not going to confuse them just because they sound alike!" Well, believe me, it happens, and quite a lot :-) When in doubt, remember that authentication refers to finding out if someone's identity is authentic (if they really are who they claim to be) and that authorization refers to finding out is someone is authorized to perform a certain task.