How Castle is Building Codeless Customer Account Protection


This is a guest post by Johanna Larsson, of Castle, who designed and built the Castle Cloudflare app and the supporting infrastructure.

Strong security should be easy.

Asking your consumers again and again to take responsibility for their security through robust passwords and other security measures doesn’t work. The responsibility of security needs to shift from end users to the companies who serve them.

Castle is leading the way for companies to better protect their online accounts with millions of consumers being protected every day. Uniquely, Castle extends threat prevention and protection for both pre and post login ensuring you can keep friction low but security high. With realtime responses and automated workflows for account recovery, overwhelmed security teams are given a hand. However, when you’re that busy, sometimes deploying new solutions takes more time than you have. Reducing time to deployment was a priority so Castle turned to Cloudflare Workers.

User security and friction

When security is no longer optional and threats are not black or white, security teams are left with trying to determine how to allow end-user access and transaction completions when there are hints of risk, or when not all of the information is available. Keeping friction low is important to customer experience. Castle helps organizations be more dynamic and proactive by making continuous security decisions based on realtime risk and trust.

Some of the challenges with traditional solutions is that they are often just focused on protecting the app or they are only focused on point of access, protecting against bot access for example. Tools specifically designed for securing user accounts however are fundamentally focused on protecting the accounts of the end-users, whether they are being targeting by human or bots. Being able to understand end-user behaviors and their devices both pre and post login is therefore critical in being able to truly protect each users. The key to protecting users is being able to decipher between normal and anomalous activity on an individual account and device basis. You also need a playbook to respond to anomalies and attacks with dedicated flows, that allows your end users to interact directly and provide feedback around security events.

By understanding the end user and their good behaviors, devices, and transactions, it is possible to automatically respond to account threats in real-time based on risk level and policy. This approach not only reduces end-user friction but enables security teams to feel more confident that they won’t ever be blocking a legitimate login or transaction.

Castle processes tens of millions of events every day through its APIs, including contextual information like headers, IP, and device types. The more information that can be associated with a request the better. This allows us to better recognize abnormalities and protect the end user. Collection of this information is done in two ways. One is done on the web application’s backend side through our SDKs and the other is done on the client side using our mobile SDK or browser script. Our experience shows that any integration of a security service based on user behavior and anomaly detection can involve many different parties across an organization, and it affects multiple layers of the tech stack. On top of the security related roles, it’s not unusual to also have to coordinate between backend, devops, and frontend teams. The information related to an end user session is often spread widely over a code base.

The cost of security

One of the biggest challenges in implementing a user-facing security and risk management solution is the variety of people and teams it needs attention from, each with competing priorities. Security teams are often understaffed and overwhelmed making it difficult to take on new projects. At the same time, it consumes time from product and engineering personnel on the application side, who are responsible for UX flows and performing continuous authentication post-login.

We’ve been experimenting with approaches where we can extract that complexity from your application code base, while also reducing the effort of integrating. At Castle, we believe that strong security should be easy.

With Cloudflare we found a service that enables us to create a more friendly, simple, and in the end, safe integration process by placing the security layer directly between the end user and your application. Security-related logic shouldn’t pollute your app, but should reside in a separate service, or shield, that covers your app. When the two environments are kept separate, this reduces the time and cost of implementing complex systems making integration and maintenance less stressful and much easier.

Our integration with Cloudflare aims to solve this implementation challenge, delivering end-to-end account protection for your users, both pre and post login, with the click of a button.

The codeless integration

In our quest for a purely codeless integration, key features are required. When every customer application is different, this means every integration is different. We want to solve this problem for you once and for all. To do this, we needed to move the security work away from the implementation details so that we could instead focus on describing the key interactions with the end user, like logins or bank transactions. We also wanted to empower key decision makers to recognize and handle crucial interactions in their systems. Creating a single solution that could be customized to fit each specific use case was a priority.

Building on top of Cloudflare’s platform, we made use of three unique and powerful products: Workers, Apps for Workers, and Workers KV.

Thanks to Workers we have full access to the interactions between the end user and your application. With their impressive performance, we can confidently run inline of website requests without creating noticeable latency. We will never slow down your site. And in order to achieve the flexibility required to match your specific use case, we created an internal configuration format that fully describes the interactions of devices and servers across HTTP, including web and mobile app traffic. It is in this Worker where we’ve implemented an advanced routing engine to match and collect information about requests and responses to events, directly from the edge. It also fully handles injecting the Castle browser script — one less thing to worry about.

All of this logic is kept separate from your application code, and through the Cloudflare App Store we are able to distribute this Worker, giving you control over when and where it is enabled, as well as what configurations are used. There’s no need to copy/paste code or manage your own Workers.

In order to achieve the required speed while running in distributed edge locations, we needed a high performing low latency datastore, and we found one in the Cloudflare Workers KV Store. Cloudflare Apps are not able to access the KV Store directly, but we’ve solved this by exposing it through a separate Worker that the Castle App connects to. Because traffic between Workers never leaves the Cloudflare network, this is both secure and fast enough to match your requirements. The KV Store allows us to maintain end user sessions across the world, and also gives us a place to store and update the configurations and sessions that drive the Castle App.

In combining these products we have a complete and codeless integration that is fully configurable and that won’t slow you down.

How does it work?

The data flow is straightforward. After installing the Castle App, Cloudflare will route your traffic through the Castle App, which uses the Castle Data Store and our API to intelligently protect your end users. The impact to traffic latency is minimal because most work is done in the background, not blocking the requests. Let’s dig deeper into each technical feature:

Script injection

One of the tools we use to verify user identity is a browser script: Castle.js. It is responsible for gathering device information and UI interaction behavior, and although it is not required for our service to function, it helps improve our verdicts. This means it’s important that it is properly added to every page in your web application. The Castle App, running between the end user and your application, is able to unobtrusively add the script to each page as it is served. In order for the script to also track page interactions it needs to be able to connect them to your users, which is done through a call to our script and also works out of the box with the Cloudflare interaction. This removes 100% of the integration work from your frontend teams.

Collect contextual information

The second half of the information that forms the basis of our security analysis is the information related to the request itself, such as IP and headers, as well as timestamps. Gathering this information may seem straightforward, but our experience shows some recurring problems in traditional integrations. IP-addresses are easily lost behind reverse proxies, as they need to be maintained as separate headers, like `X-Forwarded-For`, and the internal format of headers differs from platform to platform. Headers in general might get cut off based on whitelisting. The Castle App sees the original request as it comes in, with no outside influence or platform differences, enabling it to reliably create the context of the request. This saves your infrastructure and backend engineers from huge efforts debugging edge cases.

Advanced routing engine

Finally, in order to reliably recognize important events, like login attempts, we’ve built a fully configurable routing engine. This is fast enough to run inline of your web application, and supports near real-time configuration updates. It is powerful enough to translate requests to actual events in your system, like logins, purchases, profile updates or transactions. Using information from the request, it is then able to send this information to Castle, where you are able to analyze, verify and take action on suspicious activity. What’s even better, is that at any point in the future if you want to Castle protect a new critical user event – such as a withdrawal or transfer event – all it takes is adding a record to the configuration file. You never have to touch application code in order to expand your Castle integration across sensitive events.

We’ve put together an example TypeScript snippet that naively implements the flow and features we’ve discussed. The details are glossed over so that we can focus on the functionality.

addEventListener(event => event.respondWith(handleEvent(event)));

const respondWith = async (event: CloudflareEvent) => {
  // You configure the application with your Castle API key
  const { apiKey } = INSTALL_OPTIONS;
  const { request } = event;

  // Configuration is fetched from the KV Store
  const configuration = await getConfiguration(apiKey);

  // The session is also retrieved from the KV Store
  const session = await getUserSession(request);

  // Pass the request through and get the response
  let response = await fetch(request);

  // Using the configuration we can recognize events by running
  // the request+response and configuration through our matching engine
  const securityEvent = getMatchingEvent(request, response, configuration);

  if (securityEvent) {
    // With direct access to the raw request, we can confidently build the context
    // including a device ID generated by the browser script, IP, and headers
    const requestContext = getRequestContext(request);

    // Collecting the relevant information, the data is passed to the Castle API
    event.waitUntil(sendToCastle(securityEvent, session, requestContext));
  }

  // Because we have access to the response HTML page we can safely inject the browser
  // script. If the response is not an HTML page it is passed through untouched.
  response = injectScript(response, session);

  return response;
};

We hope we have inspired you and demonstrated how Workers can provide speed and flexibility when implementing end to end account protection for your end users with Castle. If you are curious about our service, learn more here.



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