XML Encryption:
Issues Regarding
Attribute Values and Referenced, External Data

Ed Simon
Entrust Technologies

The Issues

      Attribute values

XML Encryption enables encryption of whole elements and element content.  Should it also define encryption of other XML structures, particularly attribute values?  If so, what would attribute value encryption look like?

      Referenced, external data

XML Encryption defines how to encrypt arbitrary data but does not provide a mechanism to mark that an element’s referenced, external data has been encrypted.

Both attribute values and referenced, external data are similar from the element perspective in that they are both data associated with the element.  The difference is that attribute values are internal and referenced by name whereas referenced, external data is external and referenced by URIs (typically).


It all boils down to…

Should XML Encryption provide a uniform way for an application to know when

      an element has attribute values that have been encrypted

      an element’s referenced, external data has been encrypted


An Example 


<video src="secret.mpg"
alt="Alien spaceship in hangar at Area 51."/>


Want to encrypt
a) the value of the alt attribute and
b) the MPEG file named secret.mpg


How can this be done?


Proposal 1 – The EncryptedData Manifest Proposal

<video src="secret.mpg"

   <EncryptedData Type="video/mpeg“
     <CipherText URI="secret.enc"/>

   <EncryptedData Type="AttributeValue" Name="alt">


Proposal 2 – Use XSLT Transforms

The Transform proposal suggests using XSLT to convert attributes into elements and then encrypt according to rules presently in the XML Encryption proposal.  Could perhaps also handle external data using extension functions.

An important advantage of the Transform proposal is that it could allow tremendous flexibility in node encryption (eg. Encrypt all the content of element X except for elements Y and Z).

The disadvantages are

       that one needs a reverse transform to get back to the original plaintext

       XSLT may be deemed too inefficient for many applications; EncryptedDataManifest may not be smart, but it is (relatively) fast

       Nobody has provided an example of what the Transform proposal would look like in practice. 

What to do?

Some possibilities:

      Leave attribute value encryption and the handling of encrypted, referenced external data until version 2.0 of XML Encryption.

      Develop either the EncryptedDataManifest proposal or the Transform proposal.

      Develop both the EncryptedDataManifest proposal or the Transform proposal.  Applications can use whichever mechanism is best for their needs.

At this point, probably best to just get more feedback.