Using Cryptography in Java Applications

This post describes how to use the Java Cryptography Architecture (JCA) that allows you to use cryptographic services in your applications.

Java Cryptography Architecture Services

The JCA provides a number of cryptographic services, like message digests and signatures. These services are accessible through service specific APIs, like MessageDigest and Signature. Cryptographic services abstract different algorithms. For digests, for instance, you could use MD5 or SHA1. You specify the algorithm as a parameter to the getInstance() method of the cryptographic service class:

MessageDigest digest = MessageDigest.getInstance("MD5");

You find the value of the parameter for your algorithm in the JCA Standard Algorithm Name Documentation. Some algorithms have parameters. For instance, an algorithm to generate a private/public key pair will take the key size as a parameter. You specify the parameter(s) using the initialize() method:

KeyPairGenerator generator = KeyPairGenerator.getInstance("DSA");

If you don’t call the initialize() method, some default value will be used, which may or may not be what you want. Unfortunately, the API for initialization is not 100% consistent across services. For instance, the Cipher class uses init() with an argument indicating encryption or decryption, while the Signature class uses initSign() for signing and initVerify() for verification.

Java Cryptography Architecture Providers

The JCA keeps your code independent from a particular cryptographic algorithm’s implementation through the provider system. Providers are ranked according to a preference order, which is configurable (see below). The best preference is 1, the next best is 2, etc. The preference order allows the JCA to select the best available provider that implements a given algorithm. Alternatively, you can specify a specific provider in the second argument to getInstance():

Signature signature = Signature.getInstance("SHA1withDSA", "SUN");

The JRE comes with a bunch of providers from Oracle by default. However, due to historical export restrictions, these are not the most secure implementations. To get access to better algorithms and larger key sizes, install the Java Cryptography Extension Unlimited Strength Jurisdiction Policy Files. Update: Note that the above statement is true for the Oracle JRE. OpenJDK doesn’t have the same limitation.

Make Your Use of Cryptography Configurable

You should always make sure that the cryptographic services that your application uses are configurable. If you do that, you can change the cryptographic algorithm and/or implementation without issuing a patch. This is particularly valuable when a new attack on an (implementation of an) algorithm becomes available. The JCA makes it easy to configure the use of cryptography. The getInstance() method accepts both the name of the algorithm and the name of the provider implementing that algorithm. You should read both and any values for the algorithm’s parameters from some sort of configuration file. Also make sure you keep your code DRY and instantiate cryptographic services in a single place. Check that the requested algorithm and/or provider are actually available. The getInstance() method throws NoSuchAlgorithmException when a given algorithm or provider is not available, so you should catch that. The safest option then is to fail and have someone make sure the system is configured properly. If you continue despite a configuration error, you may end up with a system that is less secure than required. Note that Oracle recommends not specifying the provider. The reasons they provide is that not all providers may be available on all platforms, and that specifying a provider may mean that you miss out on optimizations. You should weigh those disadvantages against the risk of being vulnerable. Deploying specific providers with known characteristics with your application may neutralize the disadvantages that Oracle mentions.

Adding Cryptographic Service Providers

The provider system is extensible, so you can add providers. For example, you could use the open source Bouncy Castle or the commercial RSA BSAFE providers. In order to add a provider, you must make sure that its jar is available to the application. You can put it on the classpath for this purpose. Alternatively, you can make it an installed extension by placing it in the $JAVA_HOME/lib/ext directory, where $JAVA_HOME is the location of your JDK/JRE distribution. The major difference between the two approaches is that installed extensions are granted all permissions by default whereas code on the classpath is not. This is significant when (part of) your code runs in a sandbox. Some services, like Cipher, require the provider jar to be signed. The next step is to register the provider with the JCA provider system. The simplest way is to use Security.addProvider():

Security.addProvider(new BouncyCastleProvider());

You can also set the provider’s preference order by using the Security.insertProviderAt() method:

Security.insertProviderAt (new JsafeJCE(), 1);

One downside of this approach is that it couples your code to the provider, since you have to import the provider class. This may not be an important issue in an modular system like OSGi. Another thing to look out for is that code requires SecurityPermission to add a provider programmatically. The provider can also be configured as part of your environment via static registration by adding an entry to the properties file (found in $JAVA_HOME/jre/lib/security/


The property names in this file start with security.provider. and end with the provider’s preference. The property value is the fully qualified name of the class implementing Provider.

Implementing Your Own Cryptographic Service Provider

Don’t do it. You will get it wrong and be vulnerable to attacks.

Using Cryptographic Service Providers

The documentation for the provider should tell you what provider name to use as the second argument to getInstance(). For instance, Bouncy Castle uses BC, while RSA BSAFE uses JsafeJCE. Most providers have custom APIs as well as JCA conformant APIs. Do not use the custom APIs, since that will make it impossible to configure the algorithms and providers used.

Not All Algorithms and Implementations Are Created Equal

It’s important to note that different algorithms and implementations have different characteristics and that those may make them more or less suitable for your situation. For instance, some organizations will only allow algorithms and implementations that are FIPS 140-2 certified or are on the list of NSA Suite B cryptographic algorithms. Always make sure you understand your customer’s cryptographic needs and requirements.

Using JCA in an OSGi environment

The getInstance() method is a factory method that uses the Service Provider Interface (SPI). That is problematic in an OSGi world, since OSGi violates the SPI framework’s assumption that there is a single classpath. Another potential issue is that JCA requires some jars to be signed. If those jars are not valid OSGi bundles, you can’t run them through bnd to make them so, since that would make the signature invalid. Fortunately, you can kill both birds with one stone. Put your provider jars on the classpath of your main program, that is the program that starts the OSGi framework. Then export the provider package from the OSGi system bundle using the org.osgi.framework.system.packages.extra system property. This will make the system bundle export that package. Now you can simply use Import-Package on the provider package in your bundles. There are other options for resolving these problems if you can’t use the above solution.

Permissions in OSGi

In a previous post, we looked at implementing a sandbox for Java applications in which we can securely run mobile code.

This post looks at how to do the same in an OSGi environment.


The OSGi specification defines a dynamic module system for Java. As such, it’s a perfect candidate for implementing the kind of plugin system that would enable your application to dynamically add mobile code.

Security in OSGi builds on the Java 2 security architecture that we discussed earlier, so you can re-use your knowledge about code signing, etc.

OSGi goes a couple of steps further, however.

Revoking Permissions

One of the weaknesses in the Java permissions model is that you can only explicitly grant permissions, not revoke them. There are many cases where you want to allow everything except a particular special case.

There is no way to do that with standard Java permissions, but, luckily, OSGi introduces a solution.

The downside is that OSGi introduces its own syntax for specifying policies.

The following example shows how to deny PackagePermission for subpackages of com.acme.secret:

  ( ..PackagePermission "com.acme.secret.*" "import,exportonly" )
} "denyExample"

(In this and following examples, I give the simple name of permission classes instead of the fully qualified name. I hint at that by prefixing the simple name with ..)

PackagePermission is a permission defined by OSGi for authorization of package imports and exports. Your application could use a policy like this to make sure that mobile code can’t call the classes in a given package, for instance to limit direct access to the database.

Extensible Conditions on Permissions

The second improvement that OSGi brings is that the conditions under which a permission are granted can be dynamically evaluated at runtime.

The following example shows how to conditionally grant ServicePermission:

  [ ..BundleSignerCondition "* ; o=ACME" ]
  ( ..ServicePermission "..ManagedService" "register" )
} "conditionalExample"

ServicePermission is an OSGi defined permission that restricts access to OSGi services.

The condition is the part between square brackets. OSGi defines two conditions, which correspond to the signedBy and codeBase constructs in regular Java policies.

You can also define your own conditions. The specification gives detailed instructions on implementing conditions, especially with regard to performance.

Different Types of Permissions

The final innovation that OSGi brings to the Java permissions model, is that there are different types of permissions.

Bundles can specify their own permissions. This doesn’t mean that bundles can grant themselves permissions, but rather that they can specify the maximum privileges that they need to function. These permissions are called local permissions.

The OSGi framework ensures that the bundle will never have more permissions than the local permissions, thus implementing the principle of least privilege.

Actually, that statement is not entirely accurate. Every bundle will have certain permissions that they need to function in an OSGi environment, like being able to read the org.osgi.framework.* system properties.

These permissions are called implicit permissions, since every bundle will have them, whether the permissions are explicitly granted to the bundle or not.

The final type of permissions are the system permissions. These are the permissions that are granted to the bundle.

The effective permissions are the set of permissions that are checked at runtime:

effective = (local ∩ system) ∪ implicit

Local permissions enable auditing. Before installing a bundle into your OSGi environment, you can inspect the Bundle Permission Resource in OSGI-INF/permissions.perm to see what permissions the bundle requires.

If you are not comfortable with granting the bundle these permissions, you can decide to not install the bundle. The point is that you can know all of this without running the bundle and without having access to its source code.

Integration into the Java Permissions Model

The OSGi framework integrates their extended permissions model into the standard Java permissions model by subclassing ProtectionDomain.

Each bundle gets a BundleProtectionDomainImpl for this purpose.

This approach allows OSGi to tap into the standard Java permissions model that you have come to know, so you can re-use most of your skills in this area. The only thing you’ll have to re-learn, is how to write policies.

Comparison of Permission Models

To put the OSGi permission model into perspective, consider the following comparison table, which uses terminology from the XACML specification:

Permission Models Standard Java OSGi
Effects permit permit, deny
Target, Condition codeBase, signedBy codeBase, signedBy, custom conditions
Combining Algorithms first-applicable first-applicable, local/system/implicit

From this table you can see that the OSGi model is quite a bit more expressive than the standard Java permission model, although not as expressive as XACML.

Sandboxing Java Code

In a previous post, we looked at securing mobile Java code. One of the options for doing so is to run the code in a cage or sandbox.

This post explores how to set up such a sandbox for Java applications.

Security Manager

The security facility in Java that supports sandboxing is the java.lang.SecurityManager.

By default, Java runs without a SecurityManager, so you should add code to your application to enable one:

System.setSecurityManager(new SecurityManager());

You can use the standard SecurityManager, or a descendant.

The SecurityManager has a bunch of checkXXX() methods that all forward to checkPermission(permission, context). This method calls upon the AccessController to do the actual work (see below).

[The checkXXX() methods are a relic from Java 1.1.]

If a requested access is allowed, checkPermission() returns quietly. If denied, a java.lang.SecurityException is thrown.

Code that implements the sandbox should call a checkXXX method before performing a sensitive operation:

SecurityManager securityManager = System.getSecurityManager();
if (securityManager != null) {
  Permission permission = ...;

The JRE contains code just like that in many places.


A permission represents access to a system resource.

In order for such access to be allowed, the corresponding permission must be explicitly granted (see below) to the code attempting the access.

Permissions derive from They have a name and an optional list of actions (in the form of comma separated string values).

Java ships with a bunch of predefined permissions, like FilePermission. You can also add your own permissions.

The following is a permission to read the file /home/remon/thesis.pdf:

Permission readPermission = new
    "/home/remon/thesis.pdf", "read");

You can grant a piece of code permissions to do anything and everything by granting it AllPermission. This has the same effect as running it without SecurityManager.


Permissions are granted using policies. A Policy is responsible for determining whether code has permission to perform a security-sensitive operation.

The AccessController consults the Policy to see whether a Permission is granted.

There can only be one Policy object in use at any given time. Application code can subclass Policy to provide a custom implementation.

The default implementation of Policy uses configuration files to load grants. There is a single system-wide policy file, and a single (optional) user policy file.

You can create additional policy configuration files using the PolicyTool program. Each configuration file must be encoded in UTF-8.

By default, code is granted no permissions at all. Every grant statement adds some permissions. Permissions that are granted cannot be revoked.

The following policy fragment grants code that originates from the /home/remon/code/ directory read permission to the file /home/remon/thesis.pdf:

grant codeBase "file:/home/remon/code/-" {
    permission "/home/remon/thesis.pdf",

Note that the part following codeBase is a URL, so you should always use forward slashes, even on a Windows system.

A codeBase with a trailing / matches all class files (not JAR files) in the specified directory. A codeBase with a trailing /* matches all files (both class and JAR files) contained in that directory. A codeBase with a trailing /- matches all files (both class and JAR files) in the directory and recursively all files in subdirectories contained in that directory.

For paths in file permissions on Windows systems, you need to use double backslashes (\\), since the \ is an escape character:

grant codeBase "file:/C:/Users/remon/code/-" {
        "C:\\Users\\remon\\thesis.pdf", "read";

For more flexibility, you can write grants with variable parts. We already saw the codeBase wildcards. You can also substitute system properties:

grant codeBase "file:/${user.home}/code/-" {
        "${user.home}${/}thesis.pdf", "read";

Note that ${/} is replaced with the path separator for your system. There is no need to use that in codeBase, since that’s a URL.

Signed Code

Of course, we should make sure that the code we use is signed, so that we know that it actually came from who we think it came from.

We can test for signatures in our policies using the signedBy clause:

keystore "my.keystore";
grant signedBy "signer.alias", codeBase ... {

This policy fragment uses the keystore with alias my.keystore to look up the public key certificate with alias signer.alias.

It then verifies that the executing code was signed by the private key corresponding to the public key in the found certificate.

There can be only one keystore entry.

The combination of codeBase and signedBy clauses specifies a ProtectionDomain. All classes in the same ProtectionDomain have the same permissions.

Privileged Code

Whenever a resource access is attempted, all code on the stack must have permission for that resource access, unless some code on the stack has been marked as privileged.

Marking code as privileged enables a piece of trusted code to temporarily enable access to more resources than are available directly to the code that called it. In other words, the security system will treat all callers as if they originated from the ProtectionDomain of the class that issues the privileged call, but only for the duration of the privileged call.

You make code privileged by running it inside an AccessController.doPrivileged() call:

AccessController.doPrivileged(new PrivilegedAction() {
  public Object run() {
    // ...privileged code goes here...
    return null;

Assembling the Sandbox

Now we have all the pieces we need to assemble our sandbox:

  1. Install a SecurityManager
  2. Sign the application jars
  3. Grant all code signed by us AllPermission
  4. Add permission checks in places that mobile code may call
  5. Run the code after the permission checks in a doPrivileged() block

I’ve created a simple example on GitHub.