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The Neverending Question of Login Systems

I put a lot of work into my content management system in the last week(s), first because I had the time to work on some ongoing backend rework/improvements (after some design improvements on this blog site and my main site) but then to tackle an issue that has been lingering for a while: the handling of logins for users.

When I first created the system (about 13 years ago), I did put simple user and password input fields into place and yes, I didn't know better (just like many people designing small sites probably did and maybe still do) and made a few mistakes there like storing passwords without enough security precautions or sending them in plaintext to people via email (I know, causes a WTF moment in even myself nowadays but back then I didn't know better).

And I was very happy when the seemingly right solution for this came along: Have really trustworthy people who know how to deal with it store the passwords and delegate the login process to them - ideally in a decentralized way. In other words, I cheered for Mozilla Persona (or the BrowserID protocol) and integrated my code with that system (about 5 years ago), switching most of my small sites in this content management system over to it fully.

Yay, no need to make my system store and handles passwords in a really safe and secure way as it didn't need to store passwords any more at all! Everything is awesome, let's tackle other issues. Or so I thought. But, if you haven't heard of that, Persona is being shut down on November 30, 2016. Bummer.

So what were the alternatives for my small websites?

Well, I could go back to handling passwords myself, with a lot of research into actually secure practices and a lot of coding to get things right, and probably quite a bit of bugfixing afterwards, and ongoing maintenance to keep up with ever-growing security challenges. Not really something I was wanting to go with, also because it may make my server's database more attractive to break into (though there aren't many different people with actual logins).

Another alternative is using delegated login via Facebook, Google, GitHub or others (the big question is who), using the OAuth2 protocol. Now there's two issues there: First, OAuth2 isn't really made for delegated login but for authentication of using some resource (via an API), so it doesn't return a login identifier (e.g. email address) but rather an access token for resources and needs another potentially failure-prone roundtrip to actually get such an identifier - so it's more complicated than e.g. Persona (because using it just for login is basically misusing it). Second, the OAuth2 providers I know of are entities to whom I don't want to tell every login on my content management system, both because their Terms of Service allow them to sell that information to anyone, and second because I don't trust them enough to know about each and every one of those logins.

Firefox Accounts would be an interesting option, given that Mozilla is trustworthy on the side of dealing with password data and wouldn't sell login data or things like that, may support the same BrowserID assertion/verification flow as Persona (which I have implemented already), but it doesn't (yet) support non-Mozilla sites to use it (and given that it's a CMS, I'd have multiple non-Mozilla sites I'd need to use it for). It also seems to support an OAuth2 flow, so may be an option with that as well if it would be open to use at this point - and I need something before Persona goes away, obviously.

Other options, like "passwordless" logins that usually require a roundtrip to your email account or mobile phone on every login sounded too inconvenient for me to use.

That said, I didn't find anything "better" as a Persona replacement than OAuth2, so I took an online course on it, then put a lot of time into implementing it and I have a prototype working with GitHub's implementation (while I don't feel to trust them with all those logins, I felt they are OK enough to use for testing against). That took quite some work as well, but some of the abstraction I did for Persona implementation can be almost or completely reused (in the latter case, I just abstracted things to a level that works for both) - and there's potential in for example getting some more info than an email from the OAuth2 provider and prefill some profile fields on user creation. That said, I'm still wondering about an OAuth2 provider that's trustworthy enough privacy-wise - ideally it would just be a login service, so I don't have to go and require people to register for a whole different web service to use my content management system. Even with the fallback alone and without the federation to IdPs, Mozilla Persona was nicely in that category, and Firefox Accounts would be as well if they were open to use publicly. (Even better would be if the browser itself would act as an identity/login agent and I could just get a verified email from it as some ideas behind BrowserID and Firefox Accounts implied as a vision.)

I was also wondering about potentially hosting my own OAuth2 provider, but then I'd need to devise secure password handling on my server yet again and I originally wanted to avoid that. And I'd need to write all that code - unless I find out how to easily run existing code for an OAuth2 or BrowserID provider on my server.

So, I'm not really happy yet but I have something that can go into production fast if I don't find a better variant before Persona shuts down for good. Do you, dear reader, face similar issues and/or know of good solutions that can help?

Beitrag geschrieben von KaiRo und gepostet am 3. Oktober 2016 21:21 | Tags: BrowserID, CBSM, identity, login, Mozilla, OAuth2, Persona | 3 Kommentare | TrackBack

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AutorBeitrag

Dan

aus Sweden

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Sad
It's very sad indeed. I really liked the simplicity and the commitment to privacy.

My use case doesn't require very frequent logins, so I will probably use a passwordless solution sending emails, but it sure is annoying.
04.10.2016 22:37

Dan Callahan

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Working on a Persona successor
Several folks have been hacking on a spiritual successor to Persona at http://portier.io that might be of interest -- we should be ready to publicly launch next week. We're explicitly targeting small, independent websites. This needs to be small, simple, and self-hostable by motivated hobbyists without a full-time Ops team.

The idea is to (eventually) have a federated protocol that lets domains auth their own users, in-browser, just like Persona, but to fall back to an email confirmation loop when that's not available. And, of course, Gmail gets special-case treatment because they're too large to ignore, the jerks.

The design document has a little more information on how this all works.
20.10.2016 16:14

Niels Huylebroeck

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SQRL
It's surrounded by a bit of controversy but the ideas proposed in the SQRL draft sound like it has a nice mix of security and usability.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SQRL

Worth taking a more investigative look at I suppose.
27.01.2017 10:58

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