Before we delve into the comparative study on various methods of authenticating users, it is necessary to answer one primary question: Why does a website, app or service need to have login flow? Is it impossible to cater to the userbase without it?
With User Experience (UX) playing a pivotal role in the retention of users, the login flow needs to be seamless and intuitive. At the same time, data privacy and security cannot be compromised. With so many factors playing a role in the login and sign-up component of the service, which might seem a minor component initially, turns into a significant component.
Need for Authentication
Any solution today on the internet consists of interactive content, like commenting on articles or booking an appointment. All of these interactions do one of four primary CRUD operations on a database(Create, Read, Update, and Delete). All of these, with the exception of read-operations, should be authenticated at a minimum. (You may avoid this step if the model of service is based on full anonymity. Even in such cases, you should incorporate rate-limiting or other methods to prevent abuse.)
Read-operations also should be authenticated to some extent. For example, if a user orders something online, only the concerned vendor should be able to see the user’s mobile number and address, whereas viewing this article does not need authentication.
Suppose you get 10k comments on one of the posts on your service, or you get 1k orders within hours of launching your product on an e-commerce website. These events are updating the database, which, if done without authentication, can lead to one or more of these:
- Unable to map the comments/orders to the respective user who did it.
- Partial or complete Denial of Service (DoS). These updates could have been done by a malicious script which in case of limited quantity products in e-commerce (and similar) services render them not be in a state to cater to relevant users.
Basic Setup for Login-Signup Flow
Login-Signup is the first line of security for any service. If this is breached, a malicious user can access data that is otherwise not allowed. The login interface should also verify for user access level during the process- vendors, delivery boy, buyer, etc. in case of e-commerce or editor, author, viewer in case of a blog, and similarly for other services.
At the bare minimum, the authentication should be on username/email with the password, which can be secured even further with multi-factor authentication. To ensure privacy and protection of the users, passwords must be hashed wherever they are stored, and encrypted whenever they are transmitted.
Some pointers to keep in mind while hashing
- Use hash function, not encryption, no matter how secure the encryption is. There is no feature or facility required for login and sign-up flow that is not provided by hashing methodology which encryption provides.
- Use powerful hashing methods with salt (random salt preferably; having the same salt for all passwords makes salting go in vain). Hashing algorithms like MD5 are too weak for present-day computational power, hence comparatively insecure.
- Additionally, older standards of hashing have multiple known collision pairs. A collision is an event where two distinct inputs give the same hash as output.
With super-fast computers in the present day, it is wise to have passwords hashed multiple times to make sure a brute-force attack attempt would require more computational power, in turn making each brute-force trial time consuming.
Additional Ways to Secure Your Application
- Go Slow. In this age of high-speed internet, how can going slow be beneficial?
- A wrong password entry should have a cool-off time before the next attempt. This can be done from first attempt itself (a few hundred milliseconds) or after few attempts (maybe three of five). The cool-down time would be decided after coming to a common ground between User Experience and Security standpoints. This cool-down should be done on the server end and not client end, as client-side scripts are easier to manipulate. Additionally, when done client-side, a script can have multiple instances of a client running parallelly, which will bypass client-side protection.
- IP Rate Limiting. When IP Rate Limiting is being incorporated, there are a few pointer to keep in mind. In a shared internet connection environment, like an office, educational institution or home Wi-Fi, strict IP Rate Limiting might cause issues with user experience. One way to combat this to have a CAPTCHA to protect the site along with an IP Rate Limiting policy that specifies whether users may use your service over a shared internet connection.
- Have only verified accounts — All users who sign-up must be verified via phone (SMS or call) or email. Without a verified account, any user who knows a random person’s email or phone (which is relatively easy to obtain) can make an account using their credentials.
- Doing Reset Password the correct way - The reset password link generated must be unique and single-use. Imagine a scenario where single-use is not enforced, then I can grab my friend’s phone, and if I see any reset password link, I can go ahead and change the password again. It’s also important to have a time limit within which the reset request is valid.
Using External Service for Login
There are various external services (like Google, GitHub) that can be used for the Login and SignUp flow of the service. This reduces the resources required for the security of the userbase, as they are managed by these external services using OAuth2 protocol for authorization, which is an industry-standard as of today. Having an external service manage the login and sign-up comes with a lot of beneficial features, but there may be some use-cases where using an external service is not sensible.
Benefits of OAuth via External Service
- The sign-up user experience is enhanced, as majority users just need to click and authorize to use that service to sign-up, and the need to fill a separate form is removed.
- Password hashing, IP rate limiting, password reset, and other actions are done out of the box with OAuth2
- Users gain more trust with your service, as you are not saving their sensitive login info, but it is instead managed by a reputed external service.
Some pointers regarding External Service
- With the external service playing a pivotal role in user management, the sign-up and login flow will have some brand elements of theirs and not solely your brand.
- You may still need a sign-up form to take additional info which is not provided by the service.
- Though rare, an outage of this external service would render the authentication on your service to fail even for legit users on your service.
- During peak usage, these external services may not be able to deliver too immense of a load as they have rate-limiting for each service using their OAuth. (Some services have a paid option to lift this rate limit.)
Having gained insights into options for managing the login and sign-up mechanism for a service, I hope you are better equipped to manage user authentication for your service. To gain more detailed insight, I will put some keywords here which you can do a web search on and get further info. Kindly make sure you are always staying up to date with recent articles when making these decisions, as security standards and protocols are regularly updated.
Keywords: OAuth, JWT, Hashing and Salt, SHA-2, “Adobe encryption password breach”, Brute-force attack, Rainbow Tables, IP Rate Limiting
About the author
Abel Mathew is a final year student at National Institute of Technology, Rourkela-India. He is a mobile application developer who has been actively leading the tech-based community at the University. He has interned at Goldman Sachs as a Summer Employee and is now working on projects that improve the life of students at his University.