oauth - Creating an API for mobile applications - Authentication and Authorization

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Tags : authenticationoauthmobile-applicationrestauthentication

Top 5 Answer for oauth - Creating an API for mobile applications - Authentication and Authorization

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The way I'm thinking about doing the login part of this in my projects is:

  1. before login the user requests a login_token from the server. These are generated and stored on the server on request, and probably have a limited lifetime.

  2. to login the application calculates the hash of the users password, then hashes the password with the login_token to get a value, they then return both the login_token and the combined hash.

  3. The server checks the login_token is one that it has generated, removing it from its list of valid login_tokens. The server then combines its stored hash of the user's password with the login_token and ensures that it matches the submitted combined token. If it matches you have authenticated your user.

Advantages of this are that you never store the user's password on the server, the password is never passed in the clear, the password hash is only passed in the clear on account creation (though there may be ways around this), and it should be safe from replay attacks as the login_token is removed from the DB on use.

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That's a whole lot of questions in one, I guess quite a few people didn't manage to read all the way to the end :)

My experience of web service authentication is that people usually overengineer it, and the problems are only the same as you would encounter on a web page. Possible very simple options would include https for the login step, return a token, require it to be included with future requests. You could also use http basic authentication, and just pass stuff in the header. For added security, rotate/expire the tokens frequently, check the requests are coming from the same IP block (this could get messy though as mobile users move between cells), combine with API key or similar. Alternatively, do the "request key" step of oauth (someone suggested this in a previous answer already and it's a good idea) before authenticating the user, and use that as a required key to generate the access token.

An alternative which I haven't used yet but I've heard a lot about as a device-friendly alternative to oAuth is xAuth. Have a look at it and if you use it then I'd be really interested to hear what your impressions are.

For hashing, sha1 is a bit better but don't get hung up about it - whatever the devices can easily (and quickly in a performance sense) implement is probably fine.

Hope that helps, good luck :)

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So what you're after is some kind of server side authentication mechanism that will handle the authentication and authorisation aspects of a mobile application?

Assuming this is the case, then I would approach it as follows (but only 'cos I'm a Java developer so a C# guy would do it differently):

The RESTful authentication and authorisation service

  1. This will work only over HTTPS to prevent eavesdropping.
  2. It will be based on a combination of RESTEasy, Spring Security and CAS (for single sign on across multiple applications).
  3. It will work with both browsers and web-enabled client applications
  4. There will be a web-based account management interface to allow users to edit their details, and admins (for particular applications) to change authorisation levels

The client side security library/application

  1. For each supported platform (e.g. Symbian, Android, iOS etc) create a suitable implementation of the security library in the native language of the platform (e.g. Java, ObjectiveC, C etc)
  2. The library should manage the HTTPS request formation using the available APIs for the given platform (e.g. Java uses URLConnection etc)
  3. Consumers of the general authentication and authorisation library ('cos that's all it is) will code to a specific interface and won't be happy if it ever changes so make sure it's very flexible. Follow existing design choices such as Spring Security.

So now that the view from 30,000ft is complete how do you go about doing it? Well, it's not that hard to create an authentication and authorisation system based on the listed technologies on the server side with a browser client. In combination with HTTPS, the frameworks will provide a secure process based on a shared token (usually presented as a cookie) generated by the authentication process and used whenever the user wishes to do something. This token is presented by the client to the server whenever any request takes place.

In the case of the local mobile application, it seems that you're after a solution that does the following:

  1. Client application has a defined Access Control List (ACL) controlling runtime access to method calls. For example, a given user can read a collection from a method, but their ACL only permits access to objects that have a Q in their name so some data in the collection is quiety pulled by the security interceptor. In Java this is straightforward, you just use the Spring Security annotations on the calling code and implement a suitable ACL response process. In other languages, you're on your own and will probably need to provide boilerplate security code that calls into your security library. If the language supports AOP (Aspect Oriented Programming) then use it to the fullest for this situation.
  2. The security library caches the complete list of authorisations into it's private memory for the current application so that it doesn't have to remain connected. Depending on the length of the login session, this could be a one-off operation that never gets repeated.

Whatever you do, don't try to invent your own security protocol, or use security by obscurity. You'll never be able to write a better algorithm for this than those that are currently available and free. Also, people trust well known algorithms. So if you say that your security library provides authorisation and authentication for local mobile applications using a combination of SSL, HTTPS, SpringSecurity and AES encrypted tokens then you'll immediately have creditibility in the marketplace.

Hope this helps, and good luck with your venture. If you would like more info, let me know - I've written quite a few web applications based on Spring Security, ACLs and the like.

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Twitter addressed the external application issue in oAuth by supporting a variant they call xAuth. Unfortunately there's already a plethora of other schemes with this name so it can be confusing to sort out.

The protocol is oAuth, except it skips the request token phase and simply immediately issues an access token pair upon receipt of a username and password. (Starting at step E here.) This initial request and response must be secured - it's sending the username and password in plaintext and receiving back the access token and secret token. Once the access token pair has been configured, whether the initial token exchange was via the oAuth model or the xAuth model is irrelevant to both the client and server for the rest of the session. This has the advantage that you can leverage existing oAuth infrastructure and have very nearly the same implementation for mobile/web/desktop applications. The main disadvantage is that the application is granted access to the client's user name and password, but it appears like your requirements mandate this approach.

In any case, I'd like to agree with your intuition and that of several other answerers here: don't try to build something new from scratch. Security protocols can be easy to start but are always hard to do well, and the more convoluted they become the less likely your third-party developers are to be able to implement against them. Your hypothetical protocol is very similar to o(x)Auth - api_key/api_secret, nonce, sha1 hashing - but instead of being able to use one of the many existing libraries your developers are going to need to roll their own.

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Super late to the party but I wanted to throw in some additional points to consider for anyone interested in this issue. I work for a company doing mobile API security solutions (approov) so this whole area is definitely relevant to my interests.

To start with, the most important thing to consider when trying to secure a mobile API is how much it is worth to you. The right solution for a bank is different to the right solution for someone just doing things for fun.

In the proposed solution you mention that a minimum of three parameters will be required:

  • apikey - given to developer at registration
  • timestamp - doubles as a unique identifier for each message for a given apikey
  • hash - a hash of the timestamp + the apisecret

The implication of this is that for some API calls no username/password is required. This can be useful for applications where you don't want to force a login (browsing in online shops for example).

This is a slightly different problem to the one of user authentication and is more like authentication or attestation of the software. There is no user, but you still want to ensure that there is no malicious access to your API. So you use your API secret to sign the traffic and identify the code accessing the API as genuine. The potential problem with this solution is that you then have to give away the secret inside every version of the app. If someone can extract the secret they can use your API, impersonating your software but doing whatever they like.

To counter that threat there are a bunch of things you can do depending on how valuable the data is. Obfuscation is a simple way to make it harder to extract the secret. There are tools that will do that for you, more so for Android, but you still have to have code that generates your hash and a sufficiently skilled individual can always just call the function that does the hashing directly.

Another way to mitigate against excessive use of an API that doesn't require a login is to throttle the traffic and potentially identify and block suspect IP addresses. The amount of effort you want to go to will largely depend upon how valuble your data is.

Beyond that you can easily start getting into the domain of my day job. Anyway, it's another aspect of securing APIs that I think is important and wanted to flag up.

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