I'm writing a REST server + frontend with two goals that seem to conflict:

  1. Signing in yields a static, user-specific key (K1) to decrypt a document (D) stored encrypted on the server. The key should not be stored on the server in plaintext, i.e. if the server's database were to be examined directly, there would be no way to obtain D in plaintext without knowing the user's login info.
  2. Allow for third-party sign-on services such as Google Identity (not this specifically, just an example)

If I were handling sign-ins locally, I would ordinarily use the user's password to derive a symmetric encryption key (K2), and use that to encrypt/decrypt K1, where K1 is stored encrypted on the server. But with 3rd party sign-ons, it's my understanding that no such static key K2 can be derived since most services will only provide nonstatic tokens when authenticating.

Another solution might be to have the user sign in, then input a second password/keyphrase that yields K2, but this is really undesirable for my use case and feels somewhat hacky.

Is there a secure method for storing D in an encrypted form, such that a user authenticated with a third-party app could decrypt it, but not a server admin, for example?

  • 1
    I've removed the term "private key" since it is usually associated with the concept of public key cryptography - which is both unsuitable by its own to encrypt larger documents and which you don't seem to want to use anyway. Instead it is now talking about user "user-specific key" only to avoid such confusion when reading your question. Commented Apr 24, 2022 at 4:25
  • The only information you get from third-party authentication is basically that the authentication was successful. This information by its own is not sufficient to derive a key. You might avoid asking the user again for the passphrase if the passphrase is already stored on the client side (maybe in local storage, maybe additionally protected with a server side secret) and you can ask the user to provide it using some Javascript. Commented Apr 24, 2022 at 4:29

1 Answer 1


Unfortunately, this can't be done directly, certainly not if you want the server to never see or be able to derive the user's key even using ephemeral data. As you noted, identity provider / OAuth services can tell you who a user is (and what they're allowed to do), and they can even give you access to secrets (stored with the identity provider or a trusted third party) if the user consents to this, but there's no password (or other user-controlled secret) that is only available to your client with such delegated authentication scenarios.

One option is, as you noted, to request a passphrase after the user authenticates. This isn't necessarily a huge burden - SSO is generally seamless enough that it's not significantly worse that just using the passphrase for both authentication and key derivation - but I understand it being undesirable UX (as for "hacky"... you're not entirely wrong, but sometimes one must do the hacky thing, and it's not that bad IMO). As Steffen noted in a comment, you can store the passphrase (or some value derived from it) locally in the client to at least limit the number of times the passphrase is needed. The client-side data could even be made useless without also having some data that is stored only on the server and released only after authentication, such as generating a random XOR mask for the derived key and storing the mask in one location (e.g. server) and the masked key in the other (e.g. client). Of course, the user would still need to provide the passphrase on any new client they wanted to use (possibly in addition to authenticating through SSO).

Alternatively, if you don't mind the server having ephemeral access to the user key, you could potentially have it stored either with the identity provider directly, or in a third-party service that the user also grants you access to (e.g. cloud storage). This is, to be clear, both unconventional and less secure. In addition to meaning your server would not be unable to get the user key while the user is logged in, it also means that the user would have to trust the identity provider with their key (or, again, at least part of it). You'd also need an identity provider (or usable third-party service) that lets you store arbitrary data for a user, and retrieve it if (and only if) that user is logged into your service.

As a side note, be aware that if you control the client - for example, because it's a web app and you control the JS for it - it's always possible for you to send JS to the client that exposes any secret known on the client to the server, or to anybody else. This "Host-based security" problem effectively renders true zero-trust systems impossible on the web, and difficult everywhere.

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