Macaroons are Better Than Cookies!

Macaroons are a new kind of authorization credential developed by the folks at Google for use in distributed systems. Like cookies, macaroons are bearer tokens that enable applications to ascertain whether their holders' actions are authorized. But macaroons are better than cookies!

Macaroons are great for authorization because they're similar enough to cookies to be immediately usable by developers, but they include several features not present in cookies or other token-base authorization schemes. In particular:

  • Delegation: Macaroons support delegation. Give your macaroon to another user, and they can act on your behalf, with the same authority. Cookies permit delegation as well, but the remaining features of macaroons make it much more safe and practical to pass around macaroons than cookies.
  • Attenuation: Macaroons enable users to add caveats to the macaroon that attenuate how, when, and where it may be used. Unlike cookies, macaroons permit their holder to attenuate them before delegating. Whereas cookies and authorization tokens enable an application to get access to all of your data and to perform actions on your behalf with your full privileges, macaroons enable you to restrict what they can do. Those questionable startups that "just want the address book, we swear it," become a whole lot more secure when the target application supports macaroons, because macaroons enable you to add caveats that restrict what the application can do.
  • Proof-Carrying: Macaroons are efficient, because they carry their own proof of authorization---cryptographically secured, of course. A macaroon's caveats are constructed using chained HMAC functions, which makes it really easy to add a caveat, but impossible to remove a caveat. When you attenuate a macaroon and give it to another application, there is no way to strip the caveats from the macaroon. It's easy for the entity that created a macaroon to verify the embedded proof, but others cannot.
  • Third-Party Caveats: Macaroons allow caveats to specify predicates that are enforced by third parties. A macaroon with a third-party caveat will only be authorized when the third party certifies that the caveat is satisfied. This enables loosely coupled distributed systems to work together to authorize requests. For example, a data store can provide macaroons that are authorized if and only if the application's authentication service says that the user is authenticated. The user obtains a proof that it is authenticated from the authentication service, and presents this proof alongside the original macaroon to the storage service. The storage service can verify that the user is indeed authenticated, without knowing anything about the authentication service's implementation---in a standard implementation, the storage service can authorize the request without even communicating with the authentication service.
  • Simple Verification: Macaroons eliminate complexity in the authorization code of your application. Instead of hand-coding complex conditionals in each routine that deals with authorization, and hoping that this logic is globally consistent, you construct a general verifier for macaroons. This verifier knows how to soundly check the proofs embedded within macaroons to see if they do indeed authorize access.
  • Decoupled Authorization Logic: Macaroons separate the policy of your application (who can access what, when), from the mechanism (the code that actually upholds this policy). Because of the way the verifier is constructed, it is agnostic to the actual underlying policies it is enforcing. It simply observes the policy (in the form of an embedded proof) and certifies that the proof is correct. The policy itself is specified when macaroons are created, attenuated, and shared. You can easily audit this code within your application, and ensure that it is upheld everywhere.

Macaroons are great for distributed systems, and they're much more tasty than mere cookies. If you would like to know more about macaroons work, you can checkout the original paper. If you are just eager to get started using macaroons, checkout libmacaroons on GitHub.

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