Security

The main purpose of castellum is to handle data of test subjects. It is important to be able to read and write this data in various ways. We are also legally required to provide some specific forms of access, e.g. exporting or deleting all data on a single subject.

On the other hand, we are also required to handle this data very carefully. Among other things, we are required to split the data so that users can only ever access the parts of the data they really need.

The security measures outlined in this section are meant to only allow access where allowed and required.

Account restrictions

  • Users are automatically logged out on inactivity

  • User accounts expire on a set date

Permissions

Most actions in castellum are protected by one or more permission. For easier handling, permissions are usually not assigned directly. Instead, they are collected into meaningful groups (aka Roles). Castellum comes with some pre-defined sample groups, but you can adapt them to your needs.

Note that the django framework automatically generates a lot of permissions. Only a few of them are actually used. The full list is:

  • studies.approve_study

  • studies.view_study

  • studies.change_study

  • studies.delete_study

  • studies.access_study

  • subjects.view_subject

  • subjects.change_subject

  • subjects.delete_subject

  • subjects.export_subject

  • recruitment.recruit

  • recruitment.conduct_study

  • recruitment.search_participations

  • recruitment.view_current_appointments

  • recruitment.change_appointments

  • castellum_auth.privacy_level_1

  • castellum_auth.privacy_level_2

Study membership

If a user is a member of a study, they automatically gain the special access_study permission in the context of that study. You can also assign additional groups to study members that only apply in the context of the study.

Privacy levels

Every subject has a privacy level. A user is only allowed to access that subject if they have a sufficient privacy level themselves. For recruitment attributes, you can define separate privacy levels for read and write access. A user’s privacy level is controlled via the special permissions privacy_level_1 and privacy_level_2. The three levels (0-2) accord to the data security levels of the Max Planck Society.

Pseudonyms

There are generally two approaches to generate pseudonyms:

  • Calculate an encrypted hash over immutable, subject-related information (e.g. name, date of birth)

  • Generate a random pseudonym and store it in a mapping table

The former approach has the benefit of not relying on a central infrastructure. However, in cases where such a central infrastructure with strict access control is feasible, the latter approach is much simpler.

Castellum implements the latter approach.

For more information on these two approaches, see Anforderungen an den datenschutzkonformen Einsatz von Pseudonymisierungslösungen (german).

The algorithm that is used to generate pseudonyms can be configured. The algorithm that is used by default produces alphanumeric strings with 20 bits of entropy and two checkdigits that are guaranteed to detect single errors. It is also available as a standalone package.

Data separation

Implementation

We chose to split the data into three different categories:

  • Scientific data is handled outside of castellum. Castellum only provides the pseudonyms that are used to map this data to subjects.

  • Data relevant for recruitment is handled in castellum.

  • Contact data is also handled in castellum, but in a separate database to provide an additional barrier.

Security Considerations

The described architecture provides a clear structure for developers that should help avoiding critical data leaks. Even if an attacker is able to dump a whole table or even a whole database, this structure still limits the impact.

However, it is important to understand that the barrier between recruitment and contact data is not that high. Since castellum has full access to both, an attacker can also gain full access. Spreading the system across several databases on different servers or even in different organizations does not help much if there is still a single point of entry.

Monitoring

In order to allow analysing suspicious behavior, critical actions such as search, deletion, or login attempts are logged to a separate log file.