As explained by Jacco, a naive implementation of authentication on top of oauth2 has several vulnerabilities, the most common of which is CSRF.
Given there's a perfectly good authentication protocol available without all this pitfalls, it's not a good idea to roll your own.
OTOH, there's a lot to learn by doing it and understanding and fixing these issues.
TL;DR: don't use oauth2 for authentication unless you're doing it to learn why you shouldn't do it. Use OpenID Connect.
OAuth 2.0 Threat Model and Security Considerations
First and foremost, there's an extensive analysis of the threat model for oauth2 in RFC6819
There's several possible "flows" in oauth2. The one I focused on for my project was the
Here's what RFC6819 has to say about it:
An authorization "code" represents the intermediate result of a
successful end-user authorization process and is used by the client to
obtain access and refresh tokens. Authorization "codes" are sent to
the client's redirect URI instead of tokens for two purposes:
Browser-based flows expose protocol parameters to potential
attackers via URI query parameters (HTTP referrer), the browser
cache, or log file entries, and could be replayed. In order to
reduce this threat, short-lived authorization "codes" are passed
instead of tokens and exchanged for tokens over a more secure
direct connection between the client and the authorization
It is much simpler to authenticate clients during the direct
request between the client and the authorization server than in
the context of the indirect authorization request. The latter
would require digital signatures.
So authorization codes are more secure, yay!
authorization_code flow vulnerabilities are analyzed in section 4.4.1 of RFC6819.
This section covers a lot of ground. I'll just focus on a few of the threats.
From section 18.104.22.168:
An attacker could authorize an authorization "code" to their own
protected resources on an authorization server. He then aborts the
redirect flow back to the client on his device and tricks the victim
into executing the redirect back to the client. The client receives
the redirect, fetches the token(s) from the authorization server, and
associates the victim's client session with the resources accessible
using the token.
Impact: The user accesses resources on behalf of the attacker.
[...] For example, the user may upload private items to an attacker's
This is also covered in section 10.12 of RFC6749:
The client MUST implement CSRF protection for its redirection URI.
This is typically accomplished by requiring any request sent to the
redirection URI endpoint to include a value that binds the request to
the user-agent's authenticated state (e.g., a hash of the session
cookie used to authenticate the user-agent). The client SHOULD
utilize the "state" request parameter to deliver this value to the
authorization server when making an authorization request.
So in your redirect to the oauth2 provider you simply add a parameter
state, which is simply a CSRF token (should be unguessable, stored in a secure cookie, etc.). This token will be sent back along with the
authorization_code when the oauth2 provider redirects the user back.
The countermeasure for this attack has to be implemented by both the client and the authorization server, and can also be enforced by the authorization server.
The state parameter is also covered in this sec.SE question.
Code Substitution (OAuth Login)
This one (covered in section 22.214.171.124 of RFC6819) is specifically aimed at the authentication over oauth2 scenario.
Basically an attacker obtains an
authorization_code for the user through a malicious site (let's call it site C) and sends it to the legitimate site (which we're still calling site A) which exchanges it for an access_token that is then used to assert the user's identity through the resource server. This effectively lets the attacker login as the user on site A.
This is the one mentioned by Jacco in his answer.
The countermeasure for this attack has to be implemented by the authorization server:
All clients must indicate their client ids with every request to
exchange an authorization "code" for an access token. The
authorization server must validate whether the particular
authorization "code" has been issued to the particular client. If
possible, the client shall be authenticated beforehand.
Believe it or not, the previous attacks and their countermeasures cover most of the threats to authentication when using the code flow.
There's lots of other threats and countermeasures, many of which should always be implemented:
From section 126.96.36.199:
Handle-based tokens must use high entropy
Authenticate the client; this adds another value that the attacker has to guess
Bind the authorization "code" to the redirect URI; this adds another value that the attacker has to guess
Use short expiry time for tokens
These should all be implemented by the authorization server.
From section 188.8.131.52:
The authorization server should authenticate the client
The authorization server should validate the client's redirect URI against the pre-registered redirect URI
These should also be implemented by the authorization server.
From section 184.108.40.206, 220.127.116.11 and others:
the redirect URI of the client should point to an HTTPS protected endpoint
This one should be implemented by the client, and probably enforced by the authorization server.
Then it's okay to use oauth2 for login
Nope. Don't do it. Use OpenID Connect.
Remember the countermeasures from section 18.104.22.168? Well there was another one I didn't quote:
Clients should use an appropriate protocol, such as OpenID (cf.
[OPENID]) or SAML (cf. [OASIS.sstc-saml-bindings-1.1]) to implement
user login. Both support audience restrictions on clients.
There you go. Use that instead.
If you still want/need to authenticate against an oauth2 provider, first make sure your provider implements all the countermeasures previously mentioned above.
If it does then you may be able to pull it off. Test extensively and hire a security team to perform a full analysis of your solution.
Also, make sure all the provider's features that you rely on for security are documented in you provider's API, otherwise they might be removed without previous notice and you end up with a Very Broken™ product.
In my case:
- I was lucky enough that my provider implemented all of these countermeasures on their side.
- I'm not relying on this for authentication beyond an initial testing period of the app (it's not a required feature of my app, just a convenient placeholder pre-launch)
Also, I learned enough about oauth2 throughout this implementation to make it well worth it.
If you want to know more, read both RFC6819 and RFC6749. I also found this site very useful.