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Best Practices

Best Practices

We've covered a lot of ground with authentication and authorization, so I wanted to cover some of the best practices that I generally advise when thinking about this topic.

Don't store passwords

I can't really advise on which identity provider is best for your mobile application. However, I can clearly say that delegating the security of the identity database to someone who has that as their full time job is an excellent idea.

Choosing an identity provider is not easy. Here are my choices:

  1. If you need enterprise authentication, use Azure Active Directory.
  2. If you need a specific social identity provider (for example, Facebook or Google), use that.
  3. If you need multiple social identity providers, Auth0 is an excellent choice.
  4. If you need usernames and password, use Azure Active Directory B2C.

Storing usernames and passwords in your own database is a bad idea and should be avoided. Avoid using Microsoft Account and Twitter authentication providers. Their implementation has limitations that will be a concern if you ever try to share an authentication provider between two different backends or apps.

Use the client SDK provided by the Identity Provider

Your first step should be getting an access token from the identity provider itself. You will see the most integrated experience if you use their SDK.

  1. For Azure Active Directory, that SDK is ADAL.
  2. For Facebook, check out Xamarin.Facebook.iOS or Xamarin.Facebook.Android.
  3. For Google, check out Google APIs Core Client Library.
  4. For Auth0, check out the Auth0 Xamarin Component.
  5. For Azure Active Directory B2C, use ADAL.

Swap the Identity Provider access token for a ZUMO token.

Never use the token provided by the identity provider for anything other than requesting access to the resource. Use a short lived token (an hour is the standard) that is minted just for the purpose of providing that access. If you are not using an identity provider that is explicitly supported by Azure App Service, use a custom authentication provider to mint your own token.

Enforce Security at the Server

There is no easy way to say this. There are bad guys out there, and they are after your data. You should not assume that someone is using your client. It could just be someone with a REST client. Ensure you enforce security on your server. You can do this easily by using the [Authorize] attribute, the [AuthorizeClaims()] attribute we developed in the Authorization section or your own custom authorization attribute.

Monitoring the server is just as important as enforcing security. The Azure App Service Authentication service outputs quite a bit of logging about who is logging in (and who is denied), so you can get some good intelligence out of the logs when you mine them properly.

Securely Store Tokens

The decisions we make are always a trade-off between convenience and security. One such decision is if we should store tokens with the app. On the one hand, it's convenient to allow the app to remember the login and to not ask us to log in again with each app start. On the other hand, that fact opens up a security hole that a determined hacker can exploit. We can have convenience while still having security by utilizing the secure stores that each platform provides to store secrets like the access token.

Use https only

This should go without saying. Always use https communication. Most security professionals start off their security career with learning "Security at Rest & Security in Transit". In practical terms, storing secrets (like tokens) securely and using HTTPS as a transport mechanism satisfies both claims.

Don't stop with security there though. HTTPS is just a medium through which secure communications can take place. There are a wide range of protocols and ciphers that can be used to encrypt the traffic. Some are considered less secure and not to be used. Azure App Service provides a default set of protocols and ciphers to support backwards compatibility with older browsers. You can adjust the ciphers in use by your App Service. For information on this, refer to the Azure Documentation.

Handle Expiring Tokens

Unless you are using an identity provider that doesn't support refresh tokens (like Facebook or Twitter), you should handle refresh tokens by silently calling the refresh action. Tokens are going to expire. This is a fact of the token specifications. You need to deal with expiring tokens and act accordingly.

If you do need to use an identity provider that does not support refresh tokens, you are going to have to ask for credentials whenever the token expires. You don't get out of determining the user experience when tokens expire just because you are using Facebook or Twitter.

Authenticating Your App

My final word on authentication has to do with authenticating your app. I get the same request every week. How do I implement an API key for my app? When I probe a little, I get a few reasons for this request:

  1. I want to ensure my app is the only one accessing my backend because the data is important.
  2. I don't want my users to log in as it is inconvenient.
  3. I want to monetize my app, and I can't do that if anyone can copy it.

API keys are used by multi-tenant systems to route requests for data to the appropriate data store. For example, the very popular Parse Server used to have an API key because all clients connected to the same service. Once the Parse Server was open-sourced, the API key went away. It was no longer needed to route the request. In the same way, the Azure App Service has a unique name - the URL of the service, so it doesn't need an API key to route the information.

An API key does not prevent a rogue client from accessing your data. If you did use an API key for security, you can easily get the API key for the app by putting together a "man in the middle proxy". One such proxy is Telerik Fiddler. One of its features is "Security Testing" which amounts to a man-in-the-middle decryption technique. This works with the Android emulator as well. For iOS, you can use Charles.

So, how do you authenticate your app? Step back a moment. What are you monetizing or protecting? It's likely the data within the mobile backend. Protect that data by authenticating your users. If you absolutely must monetize your app, then there are ways to do it, and we will discuss those later in the book.