We often see people misusing IdentityServer as an authorization/permission management system. This is troublesome – here’s why.
IdentityServer (hence the name) is really good at providing a stable identity for your users across all applications in your system. And with identity I mean immutable identity (at least for the lifetime of the session) – typical examples would be a user id (aka the subject id), a name, department, email address, customer id etc…
IdentityServer is not so well suited for for letting clients or APIs know what this user is allowed to do – e.g. create a customer record, delete a table, read a certain document etc…
And this is not inherently a weakness of IdentityServer – but IdentityServer is a token service, and it’s a fact that claims and especially tokens are not a particularly good medium for transporting such information. Here are a couple of reasons:
- Claims are supposed to model the identity of a user, not permissions
- Claims are typically simple strings – you often want something more sophisticated to model authorization information or permissions
- Permissions of a user are often different depending which client or API it is using – putting them all into a single identity or access token is confusing and leads to problems. The same permission might even have a different meaning depending on who is consuming it
- Permissions can change over the life time of a session, but the only way to get a new token is to make a roundtrip to the token service. This often requires some UI interaction which is not preferable
- Permissions and business logic often overlap – where do you want to draw the line?
- The only party that knows exactly about the authorization requirements of the current operation is the actual code where it happens – the token service can only provide coarse grained information
- You want to keep your tokens small. Browser URL length restrictions and bandwidth are often limiting factors
- And last but not least – it is easy to add a claim to a token. It is very hard to remove one. You never know if somebody already took a hard dependency on it. Every single claim you add to a token should be scrutinized.
In other words – keep permissions and authorization data out of your tokens. Add the authorization information to your context once you get closer to the resource that actually needs the information. And even then, it is tempting to model permissions using claims (the Microsoft services and frameworks kind of push you into that direction) – keep in mind that a simple string is a very limiting data structure. Modern programming languages have much better constructs than that.
What about roles?
That’s a very common question. Roles are a bit of a grey area between identity and authorization. My rule of thumb is that if a role is a fundamental part of the user identity that is of interest to every part of your system – and role membership does not or not frequently change – it is a candidate for a claim in a token. Examples could be Customer vs Employee – or Patient vs Doctor vs Nurse.
Every other usage of roles – especially if the role membership would be different based on the client or API being used, it’s pure authorization data and should be avoided. If you realize that the number of roles of a user is high – or growing – avoid putting them into the token.
Design for a clean separation of identity and permissions (which is just a re-iteration of authentication vs authorization). Acquire authorization data as close as possible to the code that needs it – only there you can make an informed decision what you really need.
I also often get the question if we have a similar flexible solution to authorization as we have with IdentityServer for authentication – and the answer is – right now – no. But I have the feeling that 2017 will be our year to finally tackle the authorization problem. Stay tuned!