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Authentication is something most web applications need, and that can be difficult to get right. Recently I had to implement it for a React app I was developing, and wanted to list the options available to me. So I did a bit of research and, to my surprise, I found it's really hard to get a straightforward answer on the proper way to implement authentication between an SPA and an API backend.
Since I had to do quite a bit of work to identify the distinct patterns I could choose from, I decided to compile them into an article so others could benefit from them! My goal here is to provide you with a good starting point should you ever want your user to be able to authenticate with your SPA.
Setting the context
Before diving deeper into the subject, it's important to have an idea of what we're trying to achieve and what we'd like to avoid. So let's review what we mean by "Authentication", and the main kind of security issues we need to look out for. However, if you'd like to skip all that and go straight to the authentication patterns, feel free to do so !
The three aspects of "Authentication"
Usually when we talk about implementing some kind of Authentication system on an application, we're actually talking about 3 different concepts. In a monolithic app, these are rarely explicitly stated, because they're usually tackled at the same time. However, as we'll see a bit later, some of the Authentication patterns available to SPA don't cover all of them, which means it's important to define them. These concepts are Authorization, Authentication and Session:
- Authorization: Determining if an entity is allowed to perform a specific action. This doesn't necessarily mean we need to know who is performing the action.
- Actual Authentication: Knowing the identity of the user. For example their email address, username or any property that can be used to uniquely identify a user in your domain of work.
- Session: Maintaining state for one or both of the above concepts
Keep that in mind, we'll refer to these definitions often throughout the article!
2 types of attack to avoid
Now that we know what we want, let's review what we don't want. That is, security flaws that could allow an attacker to by pass our authentication system. There are an infinite possibilities when it comes to attacking an application, and no system can claim to be completely secure. However, when building an authentication system, here are the ones we mainly need to worry about:
- Cross Site Request Forgery (CSRF);
- and, Cross Site Scripting (XSS, I guess CSS was already taken)
I'll quickly go over them, just so we can understand the mechanism we need to have in place to cover for these!
These kind of attacks target authentication schemes that relies on cookies for storing credentials or session ID. They work by exploiting the fact that cookies related to a domain are automatically sent by the browser for every request made to the domain. This allows malicious website to set up forms designed to hit your application, and perform unwanted side-effects if your user is currently logged in.
There is also another kind of "reverse" CSRF attack which specifically targets login form. In these kind of attacks, the malicious website logs in the browser with the attacker account. Then when the user goes back to your app, thinking they're logged in with their own account, the attacker can gain access to any sensitive data they enter.
As a side note, some argue that this is a non subject as if you're vulnerable to XSS attacks, you have bigger issues to deal with anyway. For example an attacker could simply modify a login form to send credentials directly to their own server. Personally I disagree entirely as I think security measures should be self-contained and make no assumptions on the scale of the attack.
Authenticating with a monolith
One more thing : Before diving into the SPA world, I'd like to quickly review how it's done with a monolith. This way we'll have a reference point when talking about the specificities of SPA authentication.
With a monolith, usually it works like this:
I mean like this:
It's simple really: once the user submits their credentials, the server creates a stateful session. Then it mints an httpOnly cookie containing a session id, which will be sent with each subsequent request. Authentication is performed by storing an identifier in the session, and Authorization is checked by looking up the rigths/roles/permissions/whatever associated with the identity. The session is maintained natively by the browser and the cookie.
A word on CSRF
As outlined in the previous section, using a cookie makes the app vulnerable to CSRF attacks. Most frameworks have a built in way to deal with it using a CSRF token mechanism similar to the one I've included into the sequence diagram. This is good, because building a CSRF token system is hard to do and easy to get wrong.
Authenticating with an SPA
All right, now that's out of the way, let's start with today's main subject. I'm sure you're glad you've just read 800 hundred words not related in any way to SPAs, in an article about SPAs. But this was necessary, and now we'got all the context we need to review the available SPA authentication patterns in a constructive way!
Option 1: Stateful session with cookie
This is the simplest approach, and closely resembles the monolithical one. Here's how it looks :
As with the monolithic architecture, the API creates a stateful session, and a Session Cookie 🍪, with the session ID. The only difference is that the UI is now provided by the SPA. It is a big difference though because:
- The SPA is Authorized to perform some actions on behalf of the user, but the user is only Authenticated with the API. Meaning the SPA doesn't know
the identity of the user. If you choose this pattern you'll have to create a dedicated route (something like
/profile) to fetch the identity of the user.
- As we're now dealing with two different apps, for this approach to work you need to be able to share the cookie between them. This means they have to be hosted on the same domain
Since we're using a cookie, we're vulnerable to CSRF attack. However contrary to the monolothic approach where it's often handled by the framework, you have to deal with it yourself.
Dealing with CSRF attacks
In this case there are two main ways to prevent CSRF attacks:
- Setting SameSite on the cookie: This prevents the browser from automatically sending it along with requests made from another domain. This is the recommended approach by the OAuth2 specs on browser-based application. The only caveats is that this setting is only supported by recent browser versions, so users using outdated ones will be vulnerable!
- Manually setting up a CSRF mitigation method like a CSRF token. This can definetly work as outlined in this article but it's really easy to get wrong, so I'd use this option as a last resort.
Pros & Cons
- Low cost of implementation
- Older browser are not protected by SameSite cookie, you need to manually implement CSRF
- You must be able to share a domain with the server
- Doesn't provide direct authentication for the SPA, you need to make another call to a dedicated API route.
Option 2: Stateless JWT authentication
This pattern uses JWT to exchange authentication data. JWT is a standard for exchanging signed JSON data (signed, not secret !). If you want more details about how JWT work, Auth0 has a dedicated website with all the information you'll need. Here it's used to provide a stateless way to manage authentication in the SPA and authorization in the API:
Pretty straightforward, the credentials are exchanged against a JWT that contains :
- An Access Token used as a bearer token for authorization
- A Refresh Token for when the Access Token expires
- The identity of the user (often under the "sub" key of the json data)
This kind of authentication isn't as exposed to CSRF attacks if you don't store the JWT inside a cookie.
What about session
Maintaining session is problematic in this case. As explained earlier, we can't just store the Refresh Token inside the local storage, as it's vulnerable to XSS attacks. You could store it inside an HttpOnly cookie, but you lose the ability to authenticate the user with the JWT in the SPA. In that case I'd recommend using option 1 instead if possible, as it is more battle tested and easier to implement.
There is a way to give the illusion of maintaining an active session, but it requires a more complex approach, that is outlined in the next section.
Pros & Cons
- Provide both Authorization and Authentication of the SPA
- Stateless which may improve performance depending on your architecture. For example by saving a database lookup.
- Can't really maintain session in a secure way
Option 3: OpenID connect
OpenId Connect is an extension of the OAuth2 authorization framework that adds authentication capabilities to it.
OAuth2 was originally meant to allow a third-party app to perform actions in a main application on behalf of the user. Like posting comments on Facebook, or publishing a tweet. This means that "third-party" here is defined from the point of view of the end user. As in "I don't want to give my Facebook password to this random application, but I'd like to allow it to publish status on my behalf". The goal is to give the third-party app an Access Token signed by the authentication server (Facebook in our example). This doesn't take care of authenticating the user.
Authentication is enabled by the OpenId Connect protocol that adds a standard for returning an identifier for the user along the access token, that can be decoded and used by the third party app.
In our case, it can be used by our SPA to Authenticate the user against our API and get an access token to perform some actions. Our SPA is not a third-party as defined by OAuth2 since our user doesn't even need to know that the SPA and the API are two different things. However it allows us to treat our API as an authentication service for our spa which has several benefits:
- It scales better in case you DO want to authenticate from other third-party services.
- It allows you to isolate your login form making it more secure
It allows the implementation of a Silent Authentication for maintaining sessions
Here's how it looks:
It's important to note that there are several possible authentication flows when using OpenId Connect. Currently the flow that must be used by SPAs is the Authorization Clode Flow with Proof Key for Code Exchange. I won't describe it here, instead I'll do you one better and link to the awsome Auth0 article that goes into . I strongly recommend you do not try to implement this yourself as it's time consuming, and easy to get wrong. Instead use the recommended lib from you framework. For example if you're using the great Django Rest Framework, you can easily add OAuth2/OpenID Connect capabilities with Django Oauth Toolkit for DRF
As explained, it is not safe to store the tokens returned by the OpenID Connect flow in the browser. Instead, since you can make use of a Silent Authentication Flow. It works by setting a cookie on the Authentication Server and not prompting the user for their credentials if they are already logged in. CSRF is still an issue here, but since it only concerns the login form, you can use your API framework CSRF token system to mitigate, which is quite easy in most cases.
Pros & Cons
- The most flexible set up as you can use it to authenticate third-party App
- Allows the use of federated identiy provider By proxying other Open id provider like Facebook or Google Cons:
- More costly to implement and hard to get right without using a trusted Framework / Library
- I you use a dedictated authentication provider, you might need to subscribe to a paying plan
Backend For Frontend
There is one alternative I haven't listed yet, that opens up new possibilities and new authentication flows. It is the "Backend For Frontend" architecture pattern, which means serving your SPA from a server that can also run code. For example a Meta-Framework like NextJS, or just a regular server that happens to also statically serve your app. Using this solution changes a lot of things. For example, it might be easier to manually mitigate CSRF threats in option 1, or use a cookie to store the tokens created in Option 2.
However I won't go into the details here, beyond the scope of just choosing and Authentication Solution. Instead I might write a dedicated article listing the patterns associated with this architecture
In the meantime, the OAuth2 spec has a great section on the subject if you'd like to know more.
Using an Authentication Provider
Finally, As we've seen with the previous patterns, Authenticating an SPA is not as straightforward as it should be. If you don't want to invest too much time looking for the perfect solution, you can always use an Authentication and Authorization SaaS. Most of them come with out-of-the-box integrations with both you SPA and your framework of choice, which can save you a lot of time. Of course, even though most of them offer a free plan, you might need to purchase a paying subscription as your user base grows.
Most of them rely on OpenID Connect behind the scenes, meaning the integration with your SPA and your API usually look like this:
- Here are a few examples that provide a great DX:
- Auth0: Awesome service, and great documentation. However it quickly gets expensive;
- [Firebase auth]: GCP authentication solution. Interesitingly they seems to store some token in IndexDB which is not XSS safe;
- [AWS cognito]: AWS identiy management solution. Might be a good solution if you're already using AWS;
- Keycloack: Open source, yay!
As often when it comes to programming, there is no silver bullet for handling Authentication with SPAs. With this article I hope to give you some insight into what's possible so you can find a solution that best suit your needs. And to make this easier, I've compiled what we covered into this handy chart, I hope it helps you in your conception work, it certainly helped me!
I might write some dedicated tutorials on one or more of this pattern so stay tuned !
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