Skip to main content

OAuth2 - The Passwordless World of Mobile

Keeping in vogue with the fashion of killing off certain standards, technology or trends, I think it's an easy one to say, that the life of the desktop PC (and maybe even the laptop...) is coming to an end.
Smartphone sales are in the hundreds of millions per quarter and each iteration of both the iOS and Android operating system brag of richer user experiences and more sophisticated storage and app integration.  The omnipresent nature of these powerful mini-computers, has many profound benefits, uses and user benefits.



Mobile Weakness + Password Weakness = Nightmare!

With anything in the information world that is popular, comes with it security weaknesses and vulnerabilities.  The popularity aspect is a big trigger for the generation of malware and criminal intent.  As a malware developer, you would want the reward ration to be as high as possible, which means developing exploits for devices and operating systems that are the most popular.  Some key aspects of all mobile devices however result in general security weakness.  Firstly, they're small, meaning they can be easily lost or stolen.  That weakness is pretty difficult to overcome.  Unfortunately as mobiles now hold significant personal and professional information, emails, attachments, cached passwords and so on, a physical loss can have significant impact.  Most mobile devices carry no real form of anti-virus or anti-malware software, albeit this is improving.

Passwords as we know, are now not regarded as a secure means to protect websites and applications.  End users don't tend to select complex passwords (if they do they are written down...) and the transport and storage of such passwords (lack of encrypted channels, passwords not hashed in storage) all contribute to more instances of password leaks and compromise.

Password use on mobile phones, then introduces a mixture of potential vulnerabilities.  Mobile users want to access protected applications, social networking sites and web sites, all with email address and password based authentication.

Mobile keyboards are small, so many will simply enter the credentials once and cache them, leaving them vulnerable to reuse and capture if the device is lost or the operating system compromised.


Introduce OAuth2

OAuth2 (not to be confused with OAuth or OATH...) is making great strides in being the defacto standard authorization protocol, for web applications and modern federated services.  OAuth2 provides a neat access and refresh token approach to giving access to sites and services, which can reduce the burden of using static username and password based authentication and authorisation.  At a high level, OAuth2, can issue both an access token and refresh token, along with what is known as a scope.

The access token does what it says, and generally has a small lifespan - perhaps only a few minutes. The refresh token on the other hand, may have a longer lifespan and can be exchanged for a new access token in the future, without the need to re-enter usernames or passwords.  The benefit being, that the OAuth2 authorization server, can revoke the refresh token if the device that holds it, is compromised or lost. A significant improvement on having to reset passwords if a mobile is lost and contains cached passwords.  The scope aspect is simply a list of permission attributes that the authorisation server attaches to the associated access token before releasing to the requesting resource.

OAuth2 provides several different mechanisms for releasing tokens (called grants) which I wont go into here, but ultimately there is less reliance on the repeated entry of usernames and passwords.  The use of tokens removes the need for the caching of such credentials and also does not require credential exchange between the authorisation service and the protected resource.

By being able to remotely revoke an access or refresh token, gives the identity owner much more control in the event that a physical device is lost, stolen or compromised.

In addition, as passwords would be required less, more complex passwords can be used (created using generators) in order to provide a little more protection.

By Simon Moffatt





Popular posts from this blog

Customer Data: Convenience versus Security

Organisations in both the public and private sector are initiating programmes of work to convert previously physical or offline services, into more digital, on line and automated offerings.  This could include things like automated car tax purchase, through to insurance policy management and electricity meter reading submission and reporting.

Digitization versus Security

This move towards a more on line user experience, brings together several differing forces.  Firstly the driver for end user convenience and service improvement, against the requirements of data security and privacy.  Which should win?  There clearly needs to be a balance of security against service improvement.  Excessive and prohibitive security controls would result in a complex and often poor user experience, ultimately resulting in fewer users.  On the other hand, poorly defined security architectures, lead to data loss, with the impact for personal exposure and brand damage.

Top 5 Security Predictions for 2016

It's that time of year again, when the retrospective and predictive blogs come out of the closet, just before the Christmas festivities begin.  This time last year, the 2015 predictions were an interesting selection of both consumer and enterprise challenges, with a focus on:


Customer Identity ManagementThe start of IoT security awarenessReduced Passwords on MobileConsumer PrivacyCloud Single Sign On
In retrospect, a pretty accurate and ongoing list.  Consumer related identity (cIAM) is hot on most organisation's lips, and whilst the password hasn't died (and probably never will) there are more people using things like swipe login and finger print authentication than ever before.

But what will 2016 bring?


Mobile Payments to be Default for Consumers

2015 has seen the rise in things like Apple Pay and Samsung Pay hitting the consumer high street with venom.  Many retail outlets now provide the ability to "tap and pay" using a mobile device, with many banks also offer…

The Role of Identity Management in the GDPR

Unless you have been living in a darkened room for a long time, you will know the countdown for the EU's General Data Protection Regulation is dramatically coming to a head.  May 2018 is when the regulation really takes hold, and organisations are fast in the act on putting plans, processes and personnel in place, in order to comply.

Whilst many organisations are looking at employing a Data Privacy Officer (DPO), reading through all the legalese and developing data analytics and tagging processes, many need to embrace and understand the requirements with how their consumer identity and access management platform can and should be used in this new regulatory setting.

My intention in this blog, isn't to list every single article and what they mean - there are plenty of other sites that can help with that.  I want to really highlight, some of the more identity related components of the GDPR and what needs to be done.

Personal Data On the the personal data front, more and more org…