The phantom token approach explained.

The Phantom Token Approach

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The Phantom Token Approach is a privacy-preserving token usage pattern for microservices. It combines the benefits of opaque and structured tokens. To understand the pattern it is therefore essential to understand the basic differences between these token types.

OAuth 2.0 Token Types

When OAuth 2.0 was defined tokens were intentionally kept abstract and the format was not defined. There is basically no limitation on the format of tokens that an authorization server may issue. In practice you can distinguish two types of tokens:

  • Opaque tokens (by reference)
  • Structured tokens (by value)

An opaque token is a random string that has no meaning to the resource server thus the token is opaque. However, there is metadata connected to the token such as its validity or the list of approved scopes that may be of relevance or even vital for the authorization decision of the resource server AKA API or microservice. In a system using solely opaque tokens the resource server cannot retrieve this kind of information from the token itself but must call the authorization server by sending a request at the introspection endpoint as illustrated below.

Flow with Opaque Tokens

An opaque token can be seen as the reference to the user attributes and token metadata. Thus passing an opaque token can also be referred to as passing a token by reference.

Having to look up each token for validation will inevitably create load on the resource and authorization server as well as infrastructure. Structured token formats such as JSON web tokens (JWT) solve this problem. JWT tokens are compact and lightweight tokens that are designed to be passed in HTTP headers and query parameters. They are signed to protect the integrity of its data and can even be encrypted for privacy reasons. Since the format is well defined the resource server can decode and verify the token without calling any other system.

Structured tokens are tokens passed by value. The token contains enough data for the resource server to make its authorization decision. Often, it also contains user information. In certain cases such a token may even contain personal identifiable information (PII) or other data protected by law or regulations and the token as well as related systems become a subject to compliance requirements.

The Phantom Token Approach

The Phantom Token Approach is a prescriptive pattern for securing APIs and microservices that combines the security of opaque tokens with the convenience of JWTs. The idea is to have a pair of a by-reference and a by-value token. The by-value token (JWT) can be obtained with the help of a by-reference equivalent (opaque token). The client is not aware of the JWT and therefore we call the token the Phantom Token.

When a client asks for a token the Token Service returns a by-reference token. Instead of having the APIs and microservices call the Token Service for resolving the by-reference token for every request the pattern takes advantage of an API gateway, reverse proxy or any other middleware that is usually placed between the client and the APIs. In that way the APIs and microservices can benefit from the JWT without exposing any data to the client since the client will only retrieve an opaque token.

The Phantom Token Approach
  1. The client retrieves a by-reference token using any OAuth 2.0 flow.

  2. The client forwards the token in its requests to the API.

  3. The reverse proxy looks up the by-value token by calling the Introspection endpoint of the Token Service.

  4. The reverse proxy replaces the by-reference token with the by-value token in the actual request to the microservice.

Benefits of Using Opaque Tokens

The main benefit for opaque tokens is security. Access tokens are intended for the resource server, the API. However, a client may violate this rule and parse a token nevertheless. By using opaque tokens clients are prevented from implementing logic based on the content of access tokens. In addition opaque tokens for clients limit the regulated space and remove the risk of data leakages and compliance violations. It is simply not possible for the client to access or leak any data because it is not given any.

At the same time security is increased performance is optimized. The microservices will use JWT tokens that contain all the data that the service requires for processing. No need for time consuming requests. In addition the pattern can utilize caching mechanisms of the reverse proxy. A by-value token can be cached until it expires. The Curity Identity Server supports HTTP cache headers with updated values for this purpose. As a result the number of requests needed for token exchange is minimized and the system's performance is optimized.

The Phantom Token Approach is compliant with the OAuth 2.0 standard. Neither the client nor the APIs have to implement any proprietary solution for this pattern. This makes the pattern vendor neutral and applicable for any OAuth 2.0 ecosystem.

Further Reading

Check out the tutorial on phantom tokens and the module for NGINX on GitHub

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