Authentication & Authorization is complex

Could there be any more straight forward topic than authentication & authorization? The user provides user name and password and clicks “login”, the backend checks if credentials are valid. Invalid credentials are not authorized, valid credentials are authorized and identified (authenticated). End of story. Right? Well… in many cases, it’s not that trivial.

As a user, I want to be informed if I have to change my password soon.

As a security officer, I want accounts blocked for some time after a certain amount of failed login attempts. I also want passwords to expire after a certain time. I also want login sessions to expire if client IP address or browser identity changes.

As an integrator, I want to enhance the system to digest certificates, Shibboleth, SAML or OpenID Connect, Bearer Tokens, JWTs or even Kerberos Tickets.

As a support person, I want to silently normalize user login names, lowercase them or append domain names to login names.

As a usability consultant, I want to leverage the user database for UI, make user names searchable and browseable.

As a site administrator, I want to be able to filter out certain or most users from the backend even if they provide valid credentials or block login for all but a few users, i.e. for site maintenance.

As an innovator I want to join user bases from two different authentication sources and possibly migrate them on next login seamlessly, without them noticing.

As a sales person, I want to allow a limited guest user experience prior to login rather than force everbody to the login screen.

As a returning user, I want to transparently log in through a remember me cookie, but maybe make the application aware of that limited trust, asking for real login for sensitive operations.

As a developer, I want to be flexible and allow any combination of criteria. Users may login with a global password or a purpose-limited token, I want them to use a second factor like TOTP if they have set up one but pass if they haven’t, unless I don’t allow it.

For business reasons, I want to rate limit API access per hour, per day and per month with individual thresholds each.

As an auditor, I want each request’s authorization process to be logged for evidence.

There is a lot more to consider, but I will stop here.

Authentication is any means of making sure of a requester’s identity. The most common practice in computers asking for a username (identity) and a password (proof). Another common practice is asking some external authority we trust, an Identity Provider. When we look at a person’s passport to compare his photo or fingerprint with his actual face or finger, this involves the same aspect: The name written on the passport for identity. The photo or fingerprint for proof. And, implicitly, we trust the party who created the passport (Identity Provider) and maybe have some means to check the integrity of the document. But if somebody has no passport but a driver’s license, a club membership card, we might instead use this for verification.

Transparent Authentication is a special case where we can identify the user without explicitly interacting with him. This can be achieved whenever the request carries credible identifying information like a pre-established cookie, a certificate, a passport token whose integrity can be validated or other methods.

Authorization is any decision making if a requester has access to a resource. Simply being authenticated might not be enough. Guests without authentication may be eligible for certain areas of your application, but maybe not if they are from a certain IP range or country. A person may be too young or too old to use a certain facility. A person may be old enough to buy alcohol but cannot currently present a sufficient document to proof this. On the other hand, the bearer of a ticket may be eligible to visit some concert, with no interest in his actual identity. A software user may need to both be authenticated and part of a certain privilege group “administrators” to access a configuration screen.

Both requirements can be linked to each other, as well as all those aspects mentioned above.

In another article I will look at how Horde does it and discuss if this approach is still right for modern use cases.

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