Using Cryptographic Authentication without a Cryptographic API on iOS and Android Devices

This is the fifth of a series of posts discussing the paper A Comprehensive Approach to Cryptographic and Biometric Authentication from a Mobile Perspective.

Everybody agrees that passwords provide very poor security for user authentication, being vulnerable to capture by phishing attacks or database breaches, or by being reused at malicious sites. Authentication using public key cryptography does not have any of these vulnerabilities, and yet, after being available for several decades, it is only used in limited contexts. As computing shifts from traditional PCs to mobile devices, everybody agrees that passwords are terribly inconvenient on touchscreen keyboards, in addition to being insecure; and yet I don’t see a rush to adopting cryptographic authentication methods on mobile devices.

What obstacles stand in the way of widespread adoption of cryptographic authentication?

One obstacle is no doubt the complexity of cryptography. Implementing cryptographic functionality is difficult even when cryptographic libraries are available. Using a cryptographic API is no trivial matter, as documented by Martin Georgiev et al. in a recent paper (reference [39] in the paper).

Another obstacle is poor support by web browsers for the deployment and use of cryptographic credentials. In particular, there are no easy-to-use standards generally supported by browser vendors for issuing cryptographic credentials to a browser and requesting the presentation by the browser of particular credentials or credentials asserting particular attributes.

In Section 7 the paper proposes an architecture for cryptographic authentication on mobile devices that addresses these two obstacles. It does that by encapsulating cryptographic authentication of a mobile device to an application back-end inside a Prover Black Box (PBB) located in the device and a Verifier Black Box (VBB) located in the cloud, as shown in figures 6 (page 48) and 7 (page 54).

The PBB may contain one or more protocredentials for multifactor closed-loop authentication, or credentials for single factor closed-loop or open-loop authentication; and it takes care of proving possession of credentials to the VBB. After a cryptographic authentication event in which the PBB proves possession of one or more credentials, the VBB creates an authentication object that records the event and contains authentication data such as the hash of a public key or attributes asserted by a public key certificate, a U-Prove token, or an Idemix anonymous credential. The authentication object is retrievable by a one-time authentication token, which the VBB passes to the PBB and the PBB passes to the application back-end via a native front-end or via the web browser. The authentication token plays the role of a bearer token in a secondary non-cryptographic authentication of the native front-end or web browser to the back-end, and allows the application back-end to retrieve the authentication data.

In Figure 6 the native front-end of a mobile application receives the authentication token from the PBB and uses it to authenticate to the back-end of the same application, which presents it to the VBB to retrieve the authentication data.

In Figure 7, the PBB sends the token via the browser to the back-end of a web-based application, thus authenticating the browser to the back-end, which again uses the token to retrieve the authentication data from the VBB. (As a matter of terminology, we view a web-based application as having a back-end and a front-end, the back-end being its cloud portion, while the front-end consists of web pages and client-side code running in the browser.)

This architecture circumvents the two obstacles identified above to the adoption of cryptographic authentication.

The browser obstacle is avoided in Figure 6 because no browser is involved, and in Figure 7 because the browser is not involved in storing or presenting credentials, and no modification of standard browser functionality is required.

The obstacle presented by the complexity of cryptography is avoided by the encapsulation of cryptographic functionality in the PBB and the VBB and by making the PBB and the VBB accessible through non-cryptographic APIs in a manner familiar to native and web-based application developers.

In Figure 6, arrows (1) and (4) represent messages sent via the operating system of the mobile device using inter-application communication mechanisms available in iOS and Android; each message is a URL having a custom scheme, with message parameters embedded as usual in the query portion of the URL. Arrow (6) represents an HTTP POST request, and arrow (7) the corresponding response. Arrow (5) is internal to the application and can be implemented as part of a standard web API through which the native front-end accesses its back-end.

In Figure 7, arrow (1) represents an HTTP response that redirects the browser to a custom scheme that targets the PBB, with parameters included in the query portion of the URL; when the browser receives the response, it forwards it to the PBB as a message, using the inter-application communication mechanism provided by the operating system. Arrow (4) represents a message sent by the PBB using the same mechanism, with scheme https; the operating system delivers it to the browser, which forwards it as an HTTP GET request to the application back-end. Arrow (5) represents an HTTP POST request, and arrow (6) the corresponding response.

The architecture is very flexible. It covers a wide variety of use cases, some of which are sketched out in Section 7.1.

A PBB-VBB pair may be used for returning-user authentication to one particular application. In that case the PBB contains a single credential (for one-factor authentication) or protocredential (for multifactor authentication).

Alternatively, a general purpose PBB may be made available to any mobile application that has a native front-end on the device or is accessed from the device through a browser, each application having its own VBB. In that case the PBB may contain any number of credentials or protocredentials used for closed-loop authentication, as well as credentials used for open-loop authentication.

An application may ask a general purpose PBB to prove possession of an uncertified key pair to the application’s VBB for returning-user authentication, or to the VBB of an identity/attribute provider or a social network for third-party closed-loop authentication or social login. The VBB of an identity/attribute provider delivers the user’s identity or attributes to the application back-end as authentication data upon presentation of the authentication token. The VBB of a social network may instead deliver an access token that provides limited access to the user’s account, thus allowing the application to obtain the user’s identity and attributes from the user’s profile, to issue social updates on behalf of the user, and more generally to provide an alternative user interface to the social network.

An application may also ask a general purpose PBB to demonstrate that the user has certain attributes by presenting public key certificates, U-Prove tokens or Idemix anonymous credentials to the application’s VBB in open-loop authentication.

For enterprise use, a PBB-VBB pair may be shared by a group of enterprise applications, including web-based applications and applications with native front-ends, with single sign-on based on shared login sessions. I will discuss this functionality in the next post.

A security analysis of the architecture is provided in Section 8. Among other security considerations, it discusses protection against leaks through so-called Referer headers, protection against misuse of an authentication token by its recipient to impersonate the user, a countermeasure against a form of Login CSRF, identification of the application that requests presentation of one or more credentials kept by a general purpose browser, and countermeasures against a malicious application masquerading as a different application or as the system browser.

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