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Security / Software Development

Authentication Risks in Modern Apps — What You Need to Know

Mitigating security issues in microservices and APIs requires putting strong authentication mechanisms in place.
Apr 25th, 2023 10:30am by
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Let’s take a look at the security risks arising from authentication vulnerabilities and their implications in cloud native application development. But before diving deep, it helps to understand the concepts of identification, authentication, and authorization.

  • Identification refers to the claim of self-identifying who you are. In the digital world, you must state your identity with a username.
  • Authentication refers to how you prove your identity. To authenticate your identity, you need a password. The password uniquely associates with your identity, thereby creating credentials that indicate you have certain privileges within the system.
  • Authorization is the privilege you have to gain a certain level of access into a system.

Building upon these core concepts, let’s talk about authentication with respect to cloud native application development.

Authentication Is Important in Modern Apps

It is increasingly common for modern apps to be built on microservices architectures, where a large application is assembled using many smaller “micro” service-based components that can be developed, deployed and scaled independently. Each microservice enables a specific feature or functionality of the application and communicates with other microservices using APIs.

While this approach to application development allows for greater flexibility, scalability and resilience, it also presents challenges in securing communications between microservices, between APIs that enable the microservices and across the entire application at large.

This is where proper authentication in modern apps plays an extremely important role. Both authentication and authorization are core to securing APIs that microservices require to communicate with each other. While authentication and authorization represent complementary concepts discussed above, together they ensure that only an authorized user gets the right level of permission to access an API and its associated resources.

Authentication Approaches in Microservices-Based Apps

In a microservices architecture, implementing authentication is typically managed by an authentication service that verifies user identity and grants access to microservices. Some approaches to implementing authentication in microservices are listed below:

  1. Centralized Authentication: A centralized authentication service handles user authentication and provides access tokens that are used to access the microservices. Each microservice then validates the access token before allowing the user to access the service.
  2. Distributed Authentication: Each microservice handles its own authentication using a shared authentication framework or library. This approach can be more flexible than centralized authentication but can also be more complex to implement and maintain.
  3. Token-based Authentication: Uses JSON Web Tokens (JWTs) to authenticate users and grant access to microservices. JWTs are self-contained tokens that contain user information and an expiration time, and can be used to verify a user’s identity without the need for additional database queries.
  4. OpenID Connect: This is a popular authentication protocol that uses OAuth 2.0 and JWTs to provide authentication and authorization for microservices. OpenID Connect provides a standardized authentication approach widely used in modern microservices architectures.

Vulnerable Authentication Logic in Microservices and APIs

Vulnerable authentication logic in microservices refers to errors and weaknesses in the code that handles authentication within a microservices-based application. The errors and weaknesses usually occur when developers implement poor authentication mechanisms that attackers can easily bypass or manipulate.

When authentication breaks in your app, it becomes susceptible to dangerous attacks. Masquerading as legitimate users, bad actors can get access to your app’s microservices and request privileged access to highly confidential resources that are typically reserved for privileged users only. Doing this allows them to bypass security controls to deploy malicious payloads that harm the entire application hosting ecosystem.

Similarly, if an API uses weak or insecure authentication such as API keys transmitted in plain text, it can become vulnerable to brute force and sniffing attacks. APIs that do not validate authentication data or tokens can allow an attacker to inject malicious code into the API request.

With failed authentication, malicious actors get passage to compromise keys, passwords and session tokens. The result is the misuse of your application’s user identities and in a worst-case scenario, a hostile takeover.

Common Sources of Authentication Vulnerabilities 

Authentication vulnerabilities usually arise from weak credential management, poor session management and incorrectly generated or used tokens.

Weak credential management makes a modern app insecure because credentials can be easily guessed, cracked or stolen, giving unauthorized access to the application. Attackers can use various techniques such as brute-force attacks, dictionary attacks and credential stuffing to guess, steal and misuse passwords. Additionally, when password reset protocols are not prioritized, they create an attack surface for broken user authentication attacks on APIs.

A brute-force attack is a common technique in which an attacker tries different password combinations until the correct one is found. With weak passwords, this attack can be successful in a relatively short time. Similarly, dictionary attacks use precomputed lists of commonly used passwords, which are then tried against a user’s account to gain access. Credential stuffing is another attack method where attackers use stolen credentials from other data breaches to gain unauthorized access to accounts. If users are reusing passwords across different accounts, a compromised password from one account can lead to a chain reaction of unauthorized access across multiple accounts.

Containers, which are lightweight and portable environments, are often used to deploy microservices-based applications, but they can also be a potential security risk if session-related vulnerabilities are not properly addressed. Containers can be vulnerable to session hijacking if they do not have secure session management practices in place. Improper session management can empower attackers to use stolen credentials and authentication tokens to gain unauthorized access to applications. Similarly, session fixation is a vulnerability that occurs when an attacker can set a user’s session ID before the user logs in, allowing the attacker to hijack the session once the user logs in. Containers can also be vulnerable to session data leaks if session data is not properly protected. Session data should be encrypted in transit and at rest, and access to session data should be restricted to authorized users.

Tokens are commonly used in microservices-based applications as a means of granting access to authenticated users. But if generated or used insecurely, they can compromise authentication. Take for example, JWTs that rely on a single key. If that key is compromised, your entire application is at risk. Encryption is a critical part of keeping tokens safe. When JWTs are not encrypted, attackers will do what they know how to do best — sniff out the tokens to access your authentication credentials.

Mitigating Authentication Issues in Modern Apps

Mitigating authentication issues in microservices and APIs requires putting strong authentication mechanisms in place such as the OAuth authorization framework or API keys that identify and authenticate applications or users. Using encryption, multifactor authentication and proper token management provides added layers of security.

It is also important to perform regular security assessments to identify and remediate any authentication issues that may exist in your microservices and APIs. By implementing these measures, organizations can significantly reduce the risk of authentication-related security vulnerabilities in their cloud-native applications.

Panoptica Guards Against Authentication Issues

Panoptica is Cisco’s cloud native application security solution that protects the entire application life cycle from development to runtime. Panoptica brings visibility and remediation options across cloud infrastructure, containers, microservices, APIs and software bills of materials. Its API security capabilities help assess risks in the internal and third-party APIs that connect microservices in your cloud-native application.

Leverage Panoptica to detect OWASP’s API authentication and authorization vulnerabilities. Try it for free. This quick start guide walks you through how you can get started using Panoptica to secure your APIs.

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