AppSec Blog

Four Attacks on OAuth - How to Secure Your OAuth Implementation

This article briefly introduces an emerging open-protocol technology, OAuth, and presents scenarios and examples of how insecure implementations of OAuth can be abused maliciously. We examine the characteristics of some of these attack vectors, and discuss ideas on countermeasures against possible attacks on users or applications that have implemented this protocol.

An Introduction to the Protocol

OAuth is an emerging authorization standard that is being adopted by a growing number of sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Google, Yahoo!, Netflix, Flickr, and several other Resource Providers and social networking sites. It is an open-web specification for organizations to access protected resources on each other's web sites. This is achieved by allowing users to grant a third-party application access to their protected content without having to provide that application with their credentials.

Unlike Open ID, which is a federated authentication protocol, OAuth, which stands for Open Authorization, is intended for delegated authorization only and it does not attempt to address user authentication concerns.

There are several excellent online resources, referenced at the end of this article, that provide great material about the protocol and its use. However, we need to define a few key OAuth concepts that will be referenced throughout this article:

Key Concepts

  • Server or the Resource Provider controls all OAuth restrictions and is a web site or web services API where User keeps her protected data
  • User or the Resource Owner is a member of the Resource Provider, wanting to share certain resources with a third-party web site
  • Client or Consumer Application is typically a web-based or mobile application that wants to access User's Protected Resources
  • Client Credentials are the consumer key and consumer secret used to authenticate the Client
  • Token Credentials are the access token and token secret used in place of User's username and password

Example

The actual business functionality in this example is real. However, the names of the organizations and users are fictional.

MyBillManager.com provides Avon Barksdale a bill consolidation service based on the trust Avon has established with various Resource Providers, including BaltimoreCellular.com.

In the diagram below, we have demonstrated a typical OAuth handshake (aka OAuth dance) and delegation workflow, which includes the perspectives of the User, Client, and the Server in our example:

Figure 1: The entire OAuth1.0 Process Workflow

Insecure Implementations and Solutions

In this section, we will examine some of the security challenges and insecure implementations of the protocol, and provide solution ideas. It is important to note that like most other protocols, OAuth does not provide native security nor does it guarantee the privacy of protected data. It relies on the implementers of OAuth, and other protocols such as SSL, to protect the exchange of data amongst parties. Consequently, most security risks described below do not reside within the protocol itself, but rather its use.

1. Lack Of Data Confidentiality and Server Trust

While analyzing the specification, and the way OAuth leverages the keys, tokens, and secrets to establish the digital signatures and secure the requests, one realizes that much of the effort put into this protocol was to avoid the need to use HTTPS requests all together. The specification attempts to provide fairly robust schemes to ensure the integrity of a request using its signatures; however it cannot guarantee a request's confidentiality, and that could result in several threats, some of which are listed below.

1.1 Brute Force Attacks Against the Server

An attacker with access to the network will be able to eavesdrop on the traffic and gain access to the specific request parameters and attributes such as oauth_signature, consumer_key, oauth_token, signature_method (HMAC-SHA1), timestamp, or custom parameter data. These values could assist the attacker in gaining enough understanding of the request to craft a packet and launch a brute force attack against the Server. Creating tokens and shared-secrets that are long, random and resistant to these types of attacks can reduce this threat.

1.2 Lack of Server Trust

This protocol is all about authenticating the Client (consumer key and secret) and the User to the Server, but not the other way around. There is no protocol support to check the authenticity of the Server during the handshakes. So essentially, through phishing or other exploits, user requests can be directed to a malicious Server where the User can receive malicious or misleading payloads. This could adversely impact the Users, but also the Client and Server in terms of their credibility and bottom-line.

1.3 Solutions

As we have seen, the OAuth signature methods were primarily designed for insecure communications, mainly non-HTTPS. Therefore, TLS/SSL is the recommended approach to prevent any eavesdropping during the data exchange.

Furthermore, Resource Providers can limit the likelihood of a replay attack from a tampered request by implementing protocol's Nonce and Timestamp attributes. The value of oauth_nonce attribute is a randomly generated number to sign the Client request, and the oauth_timestamp defines the retention timeframe of the Nonce. The following example from Twitter .NET Development for OAuth Integration demonstrates the creation of these attributes by the application:


Figure 2: Sample oauth_nonce and oauth_timestamp methods

2. Insecure Storage of Secrets

The two areas of concern are to protect:

  • Shared-secrets on the Server
  • Consumer secrets on cross-platform clients

2.1 Servers

On the Server, in order to compute the oauth_signature, the Server must be able to access the shared-secrets (a signed combination of consumer secret and token secret) in plaintext format as opposed to a hashed value. Naturally, if the Server and all its shared-secrets were to be compromised via physical access or social engineering exploits, the attacker could own all the credentials and act on behalf of any Resource Owner of the compromised Server.

2.2 Clients

OAuth Clients use the consumer key and consumer secret combination to provide their authenticity to the Server. This allows:

  • Clients to uniquely identify themselves to the Server, giving the Resource Provider the ability to keep track of the source of all requests
  • The Server to let the User know which Client application is attempting to gain access to their account and protected resource

Securing the consumer secret on browser-based web application clients introduces the same exact challenges as securing shared-secrets on the Server. However, the installed mobile and desktop applications become much more problematic:

OAuth's dependency on browser-based authorization creates an inherit implementation problem for mobile or desktop applications that by default do not run in the User's browser. Moreover, from a pure security perspective, the main concern is when implementers store and obfuscate the key/secret combination in the Client application itself. This makes the key-rotation nearly impossible and enables unauthorized access to the decompiled source code or binary where the consumer secret is stored. For instance, to compromise the Client Credentials for Twitter's Client on Android, an attacker can simply disassemble the classes.dex with Android dissembler tool, dexdump:

# dexdump - d classes.dex

2.3 The Threats

It is important to understand that the core function of the consumer secret is to let the Server know which Client is making the request. So essentially, a compromised consumer secret does NOT directly grant access to User's protected data. However, compromised consumer credentials could lead to the following security threats:

  • In use cases where the Server MUST keep track of all Clients and their authenticity to fulfill a business requirement, (charge the Client for each User request, or for client application provisioning tasks) safeguarding consumer credential becomes critical
  • The attacker can use the compromised Client Credentials to imitate a valid Client and launch a phishing attack, where he can submit a request to the Server on behalf of the victim and gain access to sensitive data

Regardless of the use case, whenever the consumer secret of a popular desktop or mobile Client application is compromised, the Server must revoke access for ALL users of the compromised Client application. The Client must then register for a new key (a lengthy process), embed it into the application as part of a new release and deploy it to all its Users. A nightmarish process that could take weeks to restore service; and will surely impact the Client's credibility and business objectives.

2.4 Solutions

Protecting the integrity of the Client Credentials and Token Credentials works fairly well when it comes to storing them on servers. The secrets can be isolated and stored in a database or file-system with proper access control, file permission, physical security, and even database or disk encryption.

For securing Client Credentials on mobile application clients, follow security best practices for storing sensitive, non-stale data such as application passwords and secrets.

The majority of current OAuth mobile and desktop Client applications embed the Client Credentials directly into the application. This solution leaves a lot to be desired on the security front.

Few alternative implementations have attempted to reduce the security risks by obfuscation or simply shifting the security threat elsewhere:

  • Obfuscate the consumer secret by splitting it into segments or shifting characters by an offset, then embed it in the application
  • Store the Client Credentials on the Client's backend server. The credentials can then be negotiated with the front-end application prior to the Client/Server handshake. However, nothing is going to stop a rogue client to retrieve the Client Credentials from application's back-end server, making this design fundamentally unsound

Let's consider a better architectural concept that might require some deviation from the typical OAuth flow:

  • The Service Provider could require certain Clients to bind their Consumer Credentials with a device-specific identifier (similar to a session id). Prior to the initial OAuth handshake, the mobile or desktop application can authenticate the User to the Client application via username and password. The mobile Client can then call home to retrieve the Device ID from the Client's back-end server and store it securely on the device itself (e.g. iOS Keychain). Once the initial request is submitted to the Serve with both the Client Credentials and Device ID, the Service Provider can validate the authenticity of the Device ID against the Client's back-end server.

The example below illustrates this solution:


Figure 3 : alternative solution for authenticating OAuth Clients

OAuth's strength is that it never exposes a User's Server credentials to the Client application. Instead, it provides the Client application with temporary access authorization that User can revoke if necessary. So ultimately, regardless of the solution, when the Server cannot be sure of the authenticity of the Client's key/secret, it should not solely rely on these attributes to validate the Client.

3. OAuth Implementation with Flawed Session Management

As described in the first example (see figure 1), during the authorization step, the User is prompted by the Server to enter his login credentials to grant permission. The user then is redirected back to the Client application to complete the flow. The main issue is with a specific OAuth Server implementation, such as Twitter's, where the user remains logged in on the Server even after leaving the Client application.

This session management issue, in-conjunction with Server's implementation of OAuth Auto Processing, to automatically process authorization requests from clients that have been previously authorized by the Server, present serious security concerns.

Let's take a closer look at Twitter's implementation:

There are numerous third-party Twitter applications to read or send Tweets; and as of August of 2010, all third-party Twitter applications had to exclusively use OAuth for their delegation-based integration with Twitter APIs. Here is an example of this flawed implementation:

twitterfeed is a popular application that allows blog feeds to user's Twitter accounts.

Avon Barksdale registers and signs into his twitterfeed client. He then selects a publishing service such as Twitter to post his blog.


Figure 4: twitterfeed.com client authorization page

Avon is directed to Twitter's authorization endpoint where he signs into Twitter and grants access.

Figure 5 : Twitter's authorization page for third-party applications

Now, Avon is redirected back to twitterfeed where he completes the feed; and then signs out of twitterfeed and walks away.


Figure 6: twitterfeed's workflow page post server authorization

A malicious user with access to the unattended browser can now fully compromise Avon's Twitter account; and deal with the consequences of his action!


Figure 7: Twitter session remains valid in the background after user signs out of twitterfeed.com

3.1 The Threat

The User might not be aware that he has a Server session open with the Resource Provider in the background. He could simply just log out of his Client session and step away from his browser. The threat is elevated when leaving a session unattended becomes inevitable in use cases where public computers are used to access OAuth-enabled APIs. Imagine if Avon was a student who frequently accessed public computers for his daily tweet feeds. He could literally leave a Twitter session on every computer he uses.

3.2 Solutions

Resource Providers such as Twitter should always log the User out after handling the third-party OAuth authorization flow in situations where the User was not already logged into the Server before the OAuth initiation request.

Auto Processing should be turned off. That is, servers should not automatically process requests from clients that have been previously authorized by the resource owner. If the consumer secret is compromised, a rogue Client can gain ongoing unauthorized access to protected resources without the User's explicit approval.

4. Session Fixation Attack with OAuth

OAuth key contributor, Eran Hammer Lahav, has published a detailed post, referenced at the end of this article, about this specific attack that caused a major disruption to many OAuth consumers and providers. For instance, Twitter had to turn-off its third-party integration APIs for an extended period of time, impacting its users as well as all the third-party applications that depended on Twitter APIs.

In summary, the Session Fixation flaw makes it possible for an attacker to use social-engineering tactics to lure users into exposing their data via few simple steps:

  • Attacker uses a valid Client app to initiate a request to the Resource Provider to obtain a temporary Request Token. He then receives a redirect URI with this token:

http://resource_provider.com/oauth/authorize?oauth_token=XyZ

  • At a later time, the attacker uses social-engineering and phishing tactics to lure a victim to follow the redirect link with the server-provided Request Token
  • The victim follows the link, and grants client access to protected resources. This process authorizes the Request Token and associates it with the Resource Owner

The above steps demonstrate that the Resource Provider has no way of knowing whose Request Token is being authorized, and cannot distinguish between the two users.

  • The Attacker constructs the callback URI with the "authorized" Access Token and returns to the Client:

http://client_app.com/feeds/?/oauth_token= XyZ&?

  • If constructed properly, the Attacker's client account is now associated with victim's authorized Access Token

The vulnerability is that there is no way for the Server to know whose key it is authorizing during the handshake. The author describes the attack in detail and proposes risk-reducing solutions. Also, the new version of the protocol, OAuth2.0, attempts to remediate this issue via its Redirect URI being validated with the authorization key exchange.

Summary

As the web grows, more and more sites rely on distributed services and cloud computing. And in today's integrated web, users demand more functionality in terms of usability, cross-platform integration, cross-channel experiences and so on. It is up to the implementers and security professionals to safeguard user and organizational data and ensure business continuity. The implementers should not rely on the protocol to provide all security measures, but instead they should be careful to consider all avenues of attack exposed by the protocol, and design their applications accordingly.

References

Protocol SpecificationOAuth Extensions and Code SampleGoogle Provider Specification</aTwitter API ReferencesOAuth session fixation</a

About the Author

Khash Kiani is a senior security consultant at a large health care organization. He specializes in security architecture, application penetration testing, PCI, and social-engineering assessments. Khash currently holds the GIAC GWAPT, GCIH, and GSNA certifications. He can be reached at khashsec@gmail.com

23 Comments

Posted March 7, 2011 at 6:25 PM | Permalink | Reply

Sara Secure

Very important vulnerabilities pointed out here''.
The countermeasures and implementation of solutions are well laid out!!
Thank-You for that

Posted March 9, 2011 at 7:29 AM | Permalink | Reply

Khash Kiani

Thanks, that's great to hear!

Posted March 8, 2011 at 5:23 PM | Permalink | Reply

J.R.

This is a very nice effort done by you to make us fully understand this protocol and some of the security issues to watch for. The diagrams go a long way too! It's a great security reference.

Posted March 8, 2011 at 5:34 PM | Permalink | Reply

Mike W

I think phishing seems to be the main problem with all OAuth implementations, but if my user is using a compromised app and enters their credentials anyway, then there's not much more you can do other than to put some warnings on the authorization page. I just don't think that this is really a fundamental problem with OAuth, but you have some very valid points. I've also started to use OAuth 2 which is basically a cleaned-up of version of 1.0 and without any fundamental security changes. ''. Regarding capturing consumer keys in desktop/mobile applications, surely it's even easier than most people think. All you need is an SSL Proxy that lets you snoop the traffic between the application and service provider. No need to decompile the application and it doesn't matter what kind of obfuscation the developer has tried in the code. Your proposed solution seems intriguing but maybe too expensive for what I use it for.

Posted March 9, 2011 at 7:35 AM | Permalink | Reply

Khash Kiani

Agreed. I've seen a few implementations that smell like phish! As explained in the post, this isn't due to flawed protocol spec, but the way it's used and the fact that it's awfully hard to defend against social-engineering attacks.

Posted March 9, 2011 at 4:44 AM | Permalink | Reply

anon atom

I'm a long time OAuth Server/Client developer and was asked to comment on this topic: We're using OAuth for some of our RESTful APIs and I agree with all the issues you've brought up in your nice writeup. The session fixation issue was a big deal for us back then, and without getting into the politics of how it was handled, we had to deal with it. We found a quick solution right away via the usage of an appended identifier very similar to what you described in your mobile solution alternative. There's bunch of legal mumbo jumbo that has been blogged about, but in my opinion, the whole preregistration of desktop clients and getting client credentials is providing no value whatsoever that creates a unneeded hurdles when building apps. Does your firefox browser come with a consumer key when it talks to yahoo.com?

Posted March 9, 2011 at 7:41 AM | Permalink | Reply

Khash Kiani

Thanks atom for your feedback. I believe there are specific use cases (sec 2.3) where client app authentication is mandatory, mainly when the User is able to access the Resource Provider via different Client applications and cannot be associated to ONLY a single Client app.

Posted March 11, 2011 at 2:50 AM | Permalink | Reply

DKarma

nice article ''.
it really reaches out to the simple, and sheds light into the complex of this protocol.

Posted March 13, 2011 at 9:46 PM | Permalink | Reply

Khash Kiani

Thanks. But I think there are much better references on hueniverse.com to learn all the details about the OAuth flows.

Posted March 11, 2011 at 6:36 AM | Permalink | Reply

Bill

OAuth is becoming the standard method of web site to web-site authentication. Other methods such as SAML and WS-Security are losing out because they are too difficult for web developers to learn and use. Unfortunately, the baked in security of OAuth is not the greatest.

Posted March 11, 2011 at 7:08 AM | Permalink | Reply

Justin

So the OAuth spec works on the assumption that the consumer will be on a secured server and out of the user's hands, and can therefore be trusted ''" This obviously doesn't work out on a heavy app, since the key and secret would have to be packaged with the app itself '' no matter how clever your solution, it won't be practical. You just got to store them in the app itself and deal with it!

Posted March 13, 2011 at 9:52 PM | Permalink | Reply

Khash Kiani

Sometimes that's not an option. There are many business use cases that will require trust to be established between clients and the resource providers.

Posted March 11, 2011 at 4:04 PM | Permalink | Reply

Puja

What tool did you use for your diagrams?

Posted March 13, 2011 at 9:54 PM | Permalink | Reply

Khash Kiani

gliffy ''" a web-based diagramming tool.

Posted March 12, 2011 at 5:36 AM | Permalink | Reply

Me

I don't think the Twitter scenario is considered a security attack or even a security flaw. Twitter is fully aware of this functionality and shouldn't come to anyone's surprise that the twitter session id is not invalidated.

Posted March 13, 2011 at 10:00 PM | Permalink | Reply

Khash Kiani

Just because Twitter is aware of this flawed feature, it does not make it any better.

Posted March 12, 2011 at 7:11 PM | Permalink | Reply

Ben Zhou

Nice post. Very helpful. The problem that I'm having with OAuth is that they (mainly the protocol lead, Eran H) keep saying that the client creds are not to be trusted for mobile apps, but they are perfectly fine to use to authenticate a mobile client as long as you understand the identity cannot be trusted!! What? You can't have it both way ''" you can either trust the client or not.

Posted March 13, 2011 at 10:07 PM | Permalink | Reply

Khash Kiani

The protocol is designed based on the assumption that the User is the only trusted entity that establishes trust between the 3 parties (in a 3-legged flow). Users are prone to social-engineering attacks and mistakes, thus security controls should never depend on User behavior. Period.

Posted March 12, 2011 at 8:08 PM | Permalink | Reply

Matt L. Bardi

Thank you very much for this concise and easy to understand explanation of the protocols and some of the security issues to watch for. This is so much better than the OAuth Community's informal threat model that I've seen. I wish you could expand it and include all possible threats.
I'm a managing architect at a large organization and we're evaluating this protocol for our 3rd party authentication and authorization. Would you recommend large organizations that really care about security use this protocol? Thanks again.

Posted March 13, 2011 at 10:16 PM | Permalink | Reply

Khash Kiani

Thanks Matt. Well, any generic threat model will leave a lot to be desired. If you're interested in using this technology, like any other new technology, you should perform your own threat model based on your organizational goals, data, and risk adversity. I'm a big fan of this protocol, and I think if used properly, it can add great value to any organization.

Posted March 12, 2011 at 8:56 PM | Permalink | Reply

_CK()

Couldn't agree more with your assessment of Twitter's insecure session management; this is pathetic. I blogged about the same problem (on a different site) while ago. Too bad the situation has not improved since then.

Posted March 13, 2011 at 11:43 PM | Permalink | Reply

Alexi

i also agree that phishing is a big deal with OAuth
its advocates kinda, sort of, make it clear that oauth doesn't attempt to solve some of these issues , like:
"OAuth cannot help careless users, and phishing is all about not paying attention to what you do. There has been some interesting discussion about phishing on the OAuth group and the bottom line is, it is far beyond the scope of the protocol." !!!

Posted March 23, 2011 at 6:55 AM | Permalink | Reply

Nick

Excellent article. Where is the best place to learn about advanced OAuth 2.0 topics?

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