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1.12 Protecting Sensitive Information

When developing a class that provides controlled access to resources, care must be taken to protect sensitive information and functions. During deserialization, the private state of the object is restored. For example, a file descriptor contains a handle that provides access to an operating system resource. Being able to forge a file descriptor would allow some forms of illegal access, since restoring state is done from a stream. Therefore, the serializing runtime must take the conservative approach and not trust the stream to contain only valid representations of objects. To avoid compromising a class, the sensitive state of an object must not be restored from the stream, or it must be reverified by the class. Several techniques are available to protect sensitive data in classes.

The easiest technique is to mark fields that contain sensitive data as private transient. Transient fields are not persistent and will not be saved by any persistence mechanism. Marking the field will prevent the state from appearing in the stream and from being restored during deserialization. Since writing and reading (of private fields) cannot be superseded outside of the class, the transient fields of the class are safe.

Particularly sensitive classes should not be serialized at all. To accomplish this, the object should not implement either the Serializable or the Externalizable interface.

Some classes may find it beneficial to allow writing and reading but specifically handle and revalidate the state as it is deserialized. The class should implement writeObject and readObject methods to save and restore only the appropriate state. If access should be denied, throwing a NotSerializableException will prevent further access.

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