Authentication in Distributed Systems: Theory and Practice

Butler Lampson, Martín Abadi, Michael Burrows, and Edward Wobber


Citation: B. Lampson, M. Abadi, M. Burrows, and E. Wobber. Authentication in distributed systems: Theory and practice. ACM Trans. Computer Systems 10, 4 (Nov. 1992), pp 265-310.

Links: Postscript, Acrobat, Web page, Word.

Email: This paper is at



We describe a theory of authentication and a system that implements it. Our theory is based on the notion of principal and a ‘speaks for’ relation between principals. A simple principal either has a name or is a communication channel; a compound principal can express an adopted role or delegated authority. The theory shows how to reason about a principal’s authority by deducing the other principals that it can speak for; authenticating a channel is one important application. We use the theory to explain many existing and proposed security mechanisms. In particular, we describe the system we have built. It passes principals efficiently as arguments or results of remote procedure calls, and it handles public and shared key encryption, name lookup in a large name space, groups of principals, program loading, delegation, access control, and revocation.