Storing and serving files securely for multiple clients

Solution 1:

This is really bordering on "Do my system architecture" for you, but your four ideas are interesting case-studies in variable security, so let's run your options and see how they fare:

4. Checking referrer

The referrer is provided by the client. Trusting the client-provided authentication/authorization data pretty much voids security (I can just claim to have been sent from where you expect me to come from).
Verdict: TERRIBAD idea - trivial to bypass.

3. Download the files through our server

Not a bad idea, as long as you're willing to spend the bandwidth to make it happen, and your server is reliable.
Going on the assumption that you've already solved the security problem for your normal server/app, this is the most secure of the options you've presented.
Verdict: Good solution. Very secure, but possibly suboptimal if bandwidth is a factor.

2. Obfuscated URLs

Security Through Obscurity? Really? No.
I'm not even going to analyze it. Just no.
Verdict: If #4 was TERRIBAD this is TERRIWORSE because people don't even have to go through the effort of forging a referrer header. Guess the string and win a prizeall the data!

1. Generating (expiring) signed urls with PHP

This option has a pretty low suck quotient.
Anyone can click on the URL and snarf the data, which is a security no-no, but you mitigate this by making the link expire (as long as the link life is short enough the vulnerability window is small).
The URL expiring may inconvenience some users who want to hang on to the download link for a long time, or who don't get the link in a timely manner -- that's a bit of a User Experience suck, but it may be worth it.
Verdict: Not as good as #3, but if bandwidth is a major concern it's certainly better than #4 or #2.

What would I do?

Given these options, I would go with #3 -- Pass the files through your own front-end server, and authenticate the way your app normally does. Assuming your normal security is pretty decent this is the best option from a security standpoint.
Yes, this means more bandwidth use on your server, and more resources playing middleman -- but you can always just charge a tiny bit more for that.

Solution 2:

Use Amazon S3 pre-signed queries to serve the S3 objects directly to users after doing whatever user validation you wish. This method creates a time-limited URL to which you can redirect users.


Amazon S3