Securing Mattermost via lua-nginx

Dexter Chua, 23 July, 2020
mattermost hacks nginx

As announced in the previous blog post, the SRCF just launched a new mattermost instance. Mattermost runs on an open-core model, with an open-sourced free tier and paid “enterprise” feature. Being a student-run society, we went with the free tier, officially known as “Team Edition”. The Team Edition lacks some access control features that would be useful for us. After numerous failed attempts to do access control the “right” way, we decided to intercept Mattermost’s API calls at nginx via lua-nginx-module to run our own authentication logic before passing them on to Mattermost. At the end, we get more refined permission controls that we would have had with Enterprise edition.

(Failed) OAuth2 login

Originally, our goal was to restrict access to Cambridge members only. At first, we tried to let users log in via Raven (or SRCF Goose, which uses your SRCF credentials). In addition to restricting access, this avoids the need to keep and remember another password. This would have used a work-in-progress OpenID Connect (OIDC) implementation. However, Mattermost doesn’t support generic OIDC, even in the Enterprise Edition.

As Edwin discovered, what Mattermost does support is GitLab authentication, and GitLab has a sufficiently compliant OIDC implementation. Moreover, since GitLab is often self-hosted, Mattermost allows us to set custom API endpoints. Thus, we can simply mock GitLab’s API and provide authentication that way.

However, there was one critical issue that made us abandon this approach. The login button still says “GitLab”. We can inject CSS into the web client to replace the text of the button, but mobile buttons are a lost cause because mobile Mattermost plugins don’t exist yet. We can tell users to click the GitLab button to log in via Raven, but that screams “this is a huge hack”; we can only do that in blog posts.

Restricting to custom email domains

Without GitLab authentication, we had to do with email logins. Since we do not want to run a completely open server, we wanted to limit the email domains to or Mattermost has a configuration option for this. However, not every member of the university has a domain. Some have department-issued emails instead. Mattermost doesn’t natively support matching @*

Moreover, we envision cases where a Cambridge-based team wants to invite some non-Cambridge members for discussion, e.g. alumni. It is extremely difficult to allow users with an “invalid” email domain. The domain is checked whenever one creates and joins a team, in addition to during sign up. The server command-line management tools do not let us bypass the restriction. The best solution we found was to

  1. Ask the user to create an account with a dummy email
  2. Add them to the teams using the server cli tool. This must be done while they still have the email.
  3. Manually edit the database to replace their email address.
  4. Have them verify the real email.

This requires a lot of manual intervention, and is highly inflexible. The database schema is also not something that is guaranteed to be stable between versions, and editing the database directly is always risky.

While we had a working set up to do this, at the end, we decided to go for something bolder.

Filtering nginx requests with Lua

We put Mattermost behind an nginx reverse proxy, and all requests pass through nginx before reaching Mattermost. Since nginx allows custom scripting via lua-nginx-module, we can intercept the requests to perform custom validation.

On Ubuntu, lua-nginx-module can be installed via the nginx-extras package. To make use of this, we add the following line in the nginx config:

 server {
     # Usual stuff

     location / {
+        access_by_lua_file /usr/local/share/lua/5.1/mattermost.lua;
         # The rest of the usual stuff

This line tells nginx to run the file mattermost.lua to determine if the request should be allowed. The rest of the logic is all contained in this Lua file.

The next step is to figure out how the Mattermost client communicates with the server. Thankfully, the Mattermost API is well documented. To create a user, they send a POST request to The body of the request is a json of the form

    "email": "...",
    "...": "..."

A simplified version of mattermost.lua that validates the email domain will have the following contents:

json = require "json"

-- Define a helper function to check if a string ends with a suffix
local function endswith(s, x)
    return x == "" or string.sub(s, -#x) == x

if ngx.var.request_method == "POST" and ngx.var.uri == "/api/v4/users" then
    -- We tell nginx to wait for the entire request body so that we can read it
    -- in the next step.

    local args = json.decode(ngx.req.get_body_data())
    local email = args["email"]

    if not (endswith(email, "") or
            endswith(email, "") or
            endswith(email, "")) then

        -- If so, we send an error response using ngx library functions.
        -- In particular, ngx.say writes to the body.
        ngx.header["Content-type"] = 'application/json'
            message="You must use an or email",

        -- ngx.exit tells to respond with what we have written.
    -- If ngx.exit has not been called, the request is passed on to the
    -- original processor, in this case mattermost. We can also do an early
    -- return by with `return`.

Note that we return the same error as what Mattermost would have replied if the request were denied by Mattermost. Thus, any client should be able to handle this gracefully, instead of breaking in mysterious ways.

Moreover, since this denial is done by nginx at this particular endpoint, users are allowed to change their email after registration. We can also add custom logic such as allowing any domain when they have an invitation.

And beyond

This strategy allows for fully customising access control, and opens up a lot of possibilities. For example, we forbid users from creating open teams (teams that don’t require invitation to join).

We can also filter requests based on who is making it. Lua is able to make requests to the API endpoint to determine the access level of various users. We use this to restrict channel creation and modification rights to team administrators, which is vital for more public teams like the srcf team.

While this is a hack, it relies on the officially documented API. Of course, it would require updating if there is a new API version, or if there are new endpoints that do things we want to forbid. Compared to patching the server directly, this avoids the need to recompile the code and resolve merge conflicts every new version.

The full glory of the hackcode is available on GitHub.