Network Working Group
Request for Comments: 3741
Category: Informational
J. Boyer
PureEdge Solutions
D. Eastlake 3rd
J. Reagle
March 2004

Exclusive XML Canonicalization, Version 1.0

Status of this Memo

This memo provides information for the Internet community. It does not specify an Internet standard of any kind. Distribution of this memo is unlimited.

Copyright Notice

Copyright © The Internet Society (2004). All Rights Reserved.


Canonical XML specifies a standard serialization of XML that, when applied to a subdocument, includes the subdocument's ancestor context including all of the namespace declarations and attributes in the "xml:" namespace. However, some applications require a method which, to the extent practical, excludes ancestor context from a canonicalized subdocument. For example, one might require a digital signature over an XML payload (subdocument) in an XML message that will not break when that subdocument is removed from its original message and/or inserted into a different context. This requirement is satisfied by Exclusive XML Canonicalization.

Table of Contents

   1.  Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  2
       1.1.  Terminology. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  2
       1.2.  Applications . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  4
       1.3.  Limitations. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  5
   2.  The Need for Exclusive XML Canonicalization. . . . . . . . . .  5
       2.1.  A Simple Example . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  6
       2.2.  General Problems with re-Enveloping. . . . . . . . . . .  7
   3.  Specification of Exclusive XML Canonicalization. . . . . . . .  8
       3.1.  Constrained Implementation (non-normative) . . . . . . .  9
   4.  Use in XML Security. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10
   5.  Security Considerations. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12
       5.1.  Target Context . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12
       5.2.  'Esoteric' Node-sets . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13
   6.  References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13
       6.1.  Normative References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13
       6.2.  Informative References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14
   7.  Acknowledgements (Informative) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14
   Authors' Addresses . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15
   Full Copyright Statement . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16

1. Introduction

The XML Recommendation [XML] specifies the syntax of a class of objects called XML documents. The Namespaces in XML Recommendation [XML-NS] specifies additional syntax and semantics for XML documents. It is normal for XML documents and subdocuments which are equivalent for the purposes of many applications to differ in their physical representation. For example, they may differ in their entity structure, attribute ordering, and character encoding. The goal of this specification is to establish a method for serializing the XPath node-set representation of an XML document or subset such that:

      1. The node-set is minimally affected by any XML context which has
         been omitted.
      2. The canonicalization of a node-set representing well-balanced
         XML [XML-Fragment] will be unaltered by further applications of
         exclusive canonicalization.
      3. It can be determined whether two node-sets are identical except
         for transformations considered insignificant by this
         specification under [XML, XML-NS].

An understanding of the Canonical XML Recommendation [XML-C14N] is required.

   The World Wide Web Consortium Recommendation corresponding to this
   RFC is at:  Errata are located at

1.1. Terminology

The key words "MUST", "MUST NOT", "REQUIRED", "SHALL", "SHALL NOT", "SHOULD", "SHOULD NOT", "RECOMMENDED", "MAY", and "OPTIONAL" in this document are to be interpreted as described in RFC 2119 [Keywords].

The XPath 1.0 Recommendation [XPath] defines the term node-set and specifies a data model for representing an input XML document as a set of nodes of various types (element, attribute, namespace, text, comment, processing instruction, and root). The nodes are included in or excluded from a node-set based on the evaluation of an expression. Within this specification and [XML-C14N], a node-set is used to directly indicate whether or not each node should be rendered in the canonical form (in this sense, it is used as a formal mathematical set). A node that is excluded from the set is not rendered in the canonical form being generated, even if its parent node is included in the node-set. However, an omitted node may still impact the rendering of its descendants (e.g., by affecting the namespace context of the descendants).

A document subset is a portion of an XML document indicated by an XPath node-set that may not include all of the nodes in the document. As defined in [XPath] every node (e.g., element, attribute, and namespace), has exactly one parent, which is either an element node or the root node. An apex node is an element node in a document subset having no element node ancestor in the document subset. An orphan node is an element node whose parent element node is not in the document subset. The output parent of an orphan node that is not an apex node is the nearest ancestor element of the orphan node that is in the document subset; an apex node has no output parent. The output parent of a non-orphan node is the parent of the node. An output ancestor is any ancestor element node in the document subset.

For example given a document tree with three generations under the root node A and where capitalization denotes the node is in the document subset (A,E,G).

Pictorial Representation:

[diagram of nodes,]

Textual Representation:

   The following characteristics apply:
      *  A is an apex node, output parent of E, and output ancestor of
      *  E is an orphan node and the output parent of G.

An element E in a document subset visibly utilizes a namespace declaration, i.e., a namespace prefix P and bound value V, if E or an attribute node in the document subset with parent E has a qualified name in which P is the namespace prefix. A similar definition applies for an element E in a document subset that visibly utilizes the default namespace declaration, which occurs if E has no namespace prefix.

The namespace axis of an element contains nodes for all non-default namespace declarations made within the element as well as non-default namespace declarations inherited from ancestors of the element. The namespace axis also contains a node representing the default namespace if it is not the empty string, whether the default namespace was declared within the element or by an ancestor of the element. Any subset of the nodes in a namespace axis can be included in a document subset.

The method of canonicalization described in this specification receives an InclusiveNamespaces PrefixList parameter, which lists namespace prefixes that are handled in the manner described by the Canonical XML Recommendation [XML-C14N].

The exclusive canonical form of a document subset is a physical representation of the XPath node-set, as an octet sequence, produced by the method described in this specification. It is as defined in the Canonical XML Recommendation [XML-C14N] except for the changes summarized as follows:

      *  attributes in the XML namespace, such as xml:lang and xml:space
         are not imported into orphan nodes of the document subset, and
      *  namespace nodes that are not on the InclusiveNamespaces
         PrefixList are expressed only in start tags where they are
         visible and if they are not in effect from an output ancestor
         of that tag.

The term exclusive canonical XML refers to XML that is in exclusive canonical form. The exclusive XML canonicalization method is the algorithm defined by this specification that generates the exclusive canonical form of a given XML document subset. The term exclusive XML canonicalization refers to the process of applying the exclusive XML canonicalization method to an XML document subset.

1.2. Applications

The applications of Exclusive XML Canonicalization are very similar to those for Canonical XML [XML-C14N]. However, exclusive canonicalization, or equivalent means of excluding most XML context, is necessary for signature applications where the XML context of signed XML will change. This sort of change is typical of many protocol applications.

Note that in the case of the SignedInfo element of [XML-DSig], the specification of an appropriate canonicalization method is the only technique available to protect the signature from insignificant changes in physical form and changes in XML context.

1.3. Limitations

Exclusive XML Canonicalization has the limitations of Canonical XML [XML-C14N] plus two additional limitations as follows:

      1. The XML being canonicalized may depend on the effect of XML
         namespace attributes, such as xml:lang, xml:space, and xml:base
         appearing in ancestor nodes.  To avoid problems due to the
         non-importation of such attributes into an enveloped document
         subset, either they MUST be explicitly given in a node of the
         XML document subset being canonicalized where their effect is
         needed or which is an ancestor of the node where their effect
         is needed or they MUST always be declared with an equivalent
         value in every context in which the XML document subset will be
      2. Applications that use the XML being canonicalized may depend on
         the effect of XML namespace declarations where the namespace
         prefix being bound is not visibly utilized.  An example would
         be an attribute whose value is an XPath expression and whose
         evaluation therefore depends upon namespace prefixes referenced
         in the expression.  Or, an attribute value might be considered
         a QName [XML-NS] by some applications, but it is only a
         string-value to XPath:

<number xsi:type="xsd:decimal">10.09</number>.

To avoid problems with such namespace declarations,

      o  the XML MUST be modified so that use of the namespace prefix
         involved is visible, or
      o  the namespace declarations MUST appear and be bound to the same
         values in every context in which the XML will be interpreted,
      o  the prefixes for such namespaces MUST appear in the
         InclusiveNamespaces PrefixList.

2. The Need for Exclusive XML Canonicalization

In some cases, particularly for signed XML in protocol applications, there is a need to canonicalize a subdocument in such a way that it is substantially independent of its XML context. This is because, in protocol applications, it is common to envelope XML in various layers of message or transport elements, to strip off such enveloping, and to construct new protocol messages, parts of which were extracted from different messages previously received. If the pieces of XML in question are signed, they need to be canonicalized in a way such that these operations do not break the signature but the signature still provides as much security as can be practically obtained.

2.1. A Simple Example

As a simple example of the type of problem that changes in XML context can cause for signatures, consider the following document:

      <n1:elem1 xmlns:n1="http://b.example">

this is then enveloped in another document:

      <n0:pdu xmlns:n0="http://a.example">
         <n1:elem1 xmlns:n1="http://b.example">

The first document above is in canonical form. But assume that document is enveloped as in the second case. The subdocument with elem1 as its apex node can be extracted from this second case with an XPath expression such as:

    (//. | //@* | //namespace::*)[ancestor-or-self::n1:elem1]

The result of applying Canonical XML to the resulting XPath node-set is the following (except for line wrapping to fit this document):

      <n1:elem1 xmlns:n0="http://a.example"

Note that the n0 namespace has been included by Canonical XML because it includes namespace context. This change which would break a signature over elem1 based on the first version.

2.2. General Problems with re-Enveloping

As a more complete example of the changes in canonical form that can occur when the enveloping context of a document subset is changed, consider the following document:

      <n0:local xmlns:n0="foo:bar"
         <n1:elem2 xmlns:n1=""
             <n3:stuff xmlns:n3=""/>

And the following which has been produced by changing the enveloping of elem2:

<n2:pdu xmlns:n1=""


         <n1:elem2 xmlns:n1=""
             <n3:stuff xmlns:n3=""/>

Assume an XPath node-set produced from each case by applying the following XPath expression:

    (//. | //@* | //namespace::*)[ancestor-or-self::n1:elem2]

Applying Canonical XML to the node-set produced from the first document yields the following serialization (except for line wrapping to fit in this document):

      <n1:elem2 xmlns:n0="foo:bar"

However, although elem2 is represented by the same octet sequence in both pieces of external XML above, the Canonical XML version of elem2 from the second case would be (except for line wrapping so it will fit into this document) as follows:

<n1:elem2 xmlns:n1=""

          <n3:stuff xmlns:n3=""></n3:stuff>

Note that the change in context has resulted in lots of changes in the subdocument as serialized by the inclusive Canonical XML [XML- C14N]. In the first example, n0 had been included from the context and the presence of an identical n3 namespace declaration in the context had elevated that declaration to the apex of the canonicalized form. In the second example, n0 has gone away but n2 has appeared, n3 is no longer elevated, and an xml:space declaration has appeared, due to changes in context. But not all context changes have effect. In the second example, the presence at ancestor nodes of an xml:lang and n1 prefix namespace declaration have no effect because of existing declarations at the elem2 node.

On the other hand, using Exclusive XML Canonicalization as specified herein, the physical form of elem2 as extracted by the XPath expression above is (except for line wrapping so it will fit into this document) as follows:

      <n1:elem2 xmlns:n1=""
          <n3:stuff xmlns:n3=""></n3:stuff>

in both cases.

3. Specification of Exclusive XML Canonicalization

The data model, processing, input parameters, and output data for Exclusive XML Canonicalization are the same as for Canonical XML [XML-C14N] with the following exceptions:

  1. Canonical XML applied to a document subset requires the search of the ancestor nodes of each orphan element node for attributes in the XML namespace, such as xml:lang and xml:space. These are copied into the element node except if a declaration of the same attribute is already in the attribute axis of the element (whether or not it is included in the
         document subset).  This search and copying are omitted from the
         Exclusive XML Canonicalization method.
      2. The Exclusive XML Canonicalization method may receive an
         additional, possibly null, parameter InclusiveNamespaces
         PrefixList containing a list of namespace prefixes and/or a
         token indicating the presence of the default namespace.  All
         namespace nodes appearing on this list are handled as provided
         in Canonical XML [XML-C14N].
      3. A namespace node N with a prefix that does not appear in the
         InclusiveNamespaces PrefixList is rendered if all of the
         conditions are met:
         1. Its parent element is in the node-set, and
         2. it is visibly utilized by its parent element, and
         3. the prefix has not yet been rendered by any output ancestor,
            or the nearest output ancestor of its parent element that
            visibly utilizes the namespace prefix does not have a
            namespace node in the node-set with the same namespace
            prefix and value as N.
      4. If the token representing the default namespace is not present
         in InclusiveNamespaces PrefixList, then the rules for rendering
         xmlns="" are changed as follows.  When canonicalizing the
         namespace axis of an element E that is in the node-set, output
         xmlns="" if and only if all of the conditions are met:
         1. E visibly utilizes the default namespace (i.e., it has no
            namespace prefix), and
         2. it has no default namespace node in the node-set, and
         3. the nearest output ancestor of E that visibly utilizes the
            default namespace has a default namespace node in the node-
            set.  (This step for xmlns="" is necessary because it is not
            represented in the XPath data model as a namespace node, but
            as the absence of a namespace node; see  Section 4.7
            Propagation of Default Namespace Declaration in Document
            Subsets [XML-C14N].)

3.1. Constrained Implementation (non-normative)

The following is a (non-normative) method for implementing the Exclusive XML Canonicalization method for many straightforward cases -- it assumes a well-formed subset and that if an element is in the node-set, so is all of its namespace axis; if the element is not in the subset, neither is its namespace axis.

      1. Recursively process the entire tree (from which the XPath
         node-set was selected) in document order starting with the
         root. (The operation of copying ancestor xml: namespace
         attributes into output apex element nodes is not done.)
      2. If the node is not in the XPath subset, continue to process its
         children element nodes recursively.
  1. If the element node is in the XPath subset then output the node in accordance with Canonical XML except for namespace nodes which are rendered as follows:
         1. ns_rendered is a copy of a dictionary, off the top of the
            state stack, of prefixes and their values which have already
            been rendered by an output ancestor of the namespace node's
            parent element.
         2. Render each namespace node if and only if all of the
            conditions are met:
            1. it is visibly utilized by the immediate parent element or
               one of its attributes, or is present in
               InclusiveNamespaces PrefixList, and
            2. its prefix and value do not appear in ns_rendered.
         3. Render xmlns="" if and only if all of the conditions are
            1. The default namespace is visibly utilized by the
               immediate parent element node, or the default prefix
               token is present in InclusiveNamespaces PrefixList, and
            2. the element does not have a namespace node in the node-
               set declaring a value for the default namespace, and
            3. the default namespace prefix is present in the dictionary
         4. Insert all the rendered namespace nodes (including xmlns="")
            into the ns_rendered dictionary, replacing any existing
            entries.  Push ns_rendered onto the state stack and recurse.
         5. After the recursion returns, pop the state stack.

4. Use in XML Security

Exclusive Canonicalization may be used as a Transform or CanonicalizationMethod algorithm in XML Digital Signature [XML-DSig] and XML Encryption [XML-Enc].


Just as with [XML-C14N] one may use the "#WithComments" parameter to include the serialization of XML comments. This algorithm also takes an optional explicit parameter of an empty InclusiveNamespaces element with a PrefixList attribute. The value of this attribute is a white space delimited list of namespace prefixes, and where #default indicates the default namespace, to be handled as per [XML- C14N]. The list is in NMTOKENS format (a white space separated list). For example:

         <ec:InclusiveNamespaces PrefixList="dsig soap #default"

indicates the exclusive canonicalization transform, but that namespaces with prefix "dsig" or "soap" and default namespaces should be processed according to [XML-C14N].

Schema Definition (expressed in [XML-schema]):

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="utf-8"?> <!DOCTYPE schema

        PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XMLSchema 200102//EN"
         <!ATTLIST schema xmlns:ec CDATA
                   #FIXED ''>
         <!ENTITY ec ''>
         <!ENTITY % p ''>
         <!ENTITY % s ''>

<schema xmlns=""

xmlns:ec="" targetNamespace="" version="0.1" elementFormDefault="qualified">

        <element name="InclusiveNamespaces"
        <complexType name="InclusiveNamespaces">
           <attribute name="PrefixList" type="NMTOKENS"/>
      <!ELEMENT InclusiveNamespaces    EMPTY >
      <!ATTLIST InclusiveNamespaces
         PrefixList    NMTOKENS    #REQUIRED >

5. Security Considerations

This specification is used to serialize an XPath node-set under certain assumptions given in [XML-C14N] and this specification. Three such examples include:

   1. implementations of [XML-C14N] and this specification do not render
      an XML declaration;
   2. implementations of this specification only render attributes from
      the "XML" namespace (e.g., xml:lang, xml:space, and xml:base) when
      they are in the subset being serialized;
   3. implementations of this specification do not consider the
      appearance of a namespace prefix within an attribute value to be
      visibly utilized.

While such choices are consistent with other XML specifications and satisfy the Working Group's application requirements it is important that an XML application carefully construct its transforms such that the result is meaningful and unambiguous in its application context. In addition to this section, the Limitations of this specification, the Resolutions of [XML-C14N], and the Security Considerations of [XML-DSig] should be carefully attended to.

5.1. Target Context

The requirement of this specification is to satisfy applications that "require a method which, to the extent practical, excludes ancestor context from a canonicalized subdocument." Given a fragment being removed from its source instance, this specification satisfies this requirement by excluding from the fragment any context from its ancestors that is not utilized. Consequently, a signature [XML-DSig] over that fragment will remain valid in its source context, removed from the source context, and even in a new target context. However, this specification does not insulate the fragment against confused interpretation in a target context.

For example, if the <Foo/> element is signed in its source instance of <Bar/><Foo/></Bar> and then removed and placed in the target instance <Baz xmlns=""/><Foo/></Baz>, the signature should still be valid, but won't be if <Foo/> is interpreted as belonging to the namespace: this is dependent on how nodes are processed.

This specification does not define mechanisms of removing, inserting, and "fixing up" a node-set. (For an example of this sort of specification, see the processing required of Creating the Result Infoset (section 4.5) when an [XInclude] is performed.) Instead, applications must carefully specify the XML (i.e., source, fragment,

   and target) or define the node-set processing (i.e., removal,
   replacement, and insertion) with respect to default namespace
   declarations (e.g., xmlns="") and XML attributes (e.g., xml:lang,
   xml:space, and xml:base).

5.2. 'Esoteric' Node-sets

Consider an application that might use this specification or [XML- C14N] to serialize a single attribute node. An implementation of either specification will not emit a namespace declaration for that single attribute node. Consequently, a "carefully constructed" transform should create a node-set containing the attribute and the relevant namespace declaration for serialization.

This example is provided to caution that as one moves beyond well- formed [XML] and then well-balanced XML [XML-Fragment], it becomes increasingly difficult to create a result that "is meaningful and unambiguous in its application context."

6. References

6.1. Normative References

   [Keywords]     Bradner, S., "Key words for use in RFCs to Indicate
                  Requirement Levels", BCP 14, RFC 2119, March 1997.
   [XML]          Extensible Markup Language (XML) 1.0 (Second Edition).
                  T.  Bray, E.  Maler, J. Paoli, and C. M. Sperberg-
                  McQueen.  W3C Recommendation, October 2000.  Available
   [XML-C14N]     Boyer, J., "Canonical XML", RFC 3076, March 2001.
                  Also a W3C Recommendation available at
   [XML-NS]       Namespaces in XML.  T.  Bray, D. Hollander, and A.
                  Layman.  W3C Recommendation, January 1999.  Available
   [XML-schema]   XML Schema Part 1: Structures D. Beech, M. Maloney, N.
                  Mendelsohn, and H. Thompson.  W3C Recommendation, May
                  2001.  Available at
   [XPath]        XML Path Language (XPath) Version 1.0. J. Clark and S.
                  DeRose.  W3C Recommendation, November 1999.  Available

6.2. Informative References

   [URI]          Berners-Lee, T., Fielding, R. and L. Masinter,
                  "Uniform Resource Identifiers (URI): Generic Syntax",
                  RFC 2396, August 1998.
   [XInclude]     XML Inclusions (XInclude) Version 1.0. J. Marsh, and
                  D.  Orchad.  W3C Candidate Recommendation, February
                  2002.  Available at
   [XML-DSig]     Eastlake, D., Reagle, J. and D. Solo, "XML-Signature
                  Syntax and Processing", RFC 3275, March 2002.
                  Available at
   [XML-Enc]      XML Encryption Syntax and Processing.  D.  Eastlake,
                  and J.  Reagle.  W3C Candidate Recommendation, March
                  2002.  Available at

[XML-Fragment] XML Fragment Interchange. P. Grosso, and D.

                  Veillard.  W3C Candidate Recommendation, February
                  2001.  Available at

7. Acknowledgements (Informative)

The following people provided valuable feedback that improved the quality of this specification:

        * Merlin Hughes, Baltimore
        * Thomas Maslen, DSTC
        * Paul Denning, MITRE
        * Christian Geuer-Pollmann, University Siegen
        * Bob Atkinson, Microsoft

Authors' Addresses

John Boyer
PureEdge Solutions Inc.
4396 West Saanich Rd.
Victoria, BC, Canada V8Z 3E9

   Phone: +1-888-517-2675

Donald E. Eastlake 3rd
155 Beaver Street
Milford, MA 01757 USA

   Phone: +1-508-634-2066 (h)
          +1-508-786-7554 (w)

Joseph M. Reagle Jr., W3C
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Laboratory for Computer Science
NE43-350, 545 Technology Square
Cambridge, MA 02139

   Phone: +1-617-258-7621

Full Copyright Statement

Copyright © The Internet Society (2004). This document is subject to the rights, licenses and restrictions contained in BCP 78 and except as set forth therein, the authors retain all their rights.


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