How to implement password-less authentication with Amazon Cognito and WebAuthn

In this blog post, I show you how to offer a password-less authentication experience to your customers. To do this, you’ll allow physical security keys or platform authenticators (like finger-print scanners) to be used as the authentication factor to your web or mobile applications that use Amazon Cognito user pools for authentication.

An Amazon Cognito user pool is a user directory that Amazon Web Services (AWS) customers use to manage their customer identities. Web Authentication (WebAuthn) is a W3C standard that lets users authenticate to web applications using public-key cryptography. Using public-key cryptography enables you to implement a stronger authentication mechanism that’s less dependent on passwords.

Mobile and web applications can use WebAuthn together with browser and device support for the Client-To-Authenticator-Protocol (CTAP) to implement Fast ID Online (FIDO) authentication. To learn more about the flow of WebAuthn and CTAP, visit the FIDO Alliance.

How it works

Amazon Cognito user pools allow you to build a custom authentication flow that uses AWS Lambda functions to authenticates users based on one or more challenge/response cycles. You can use this flow to implement password-less authentication that is based on custom challenges. To use this flow to implement FIDO authentication, you need to create credentials during the registration phase and reference these credentials in the user’s profile. You can then validate these credentials during the authentication phase in a custom challenge.

During registration, a new set of credentials that are bound to your application (relying party), are created through a FIDO authenticator. For example, a platform authenticator with a biometric sensor or a roaming authenticator like a physical security key. The private key of this credential set remains on the authenticator, the public key, together with a credential identifier are saved in a custom attribute that’s part of the user profile in Amazon Cognito.

During authentication, a Cognito custom authentication flow will be used to implement authentication through a custom challenge. The application prompts the user to sign in using the authenticator that they used during registration. Response from the authenticator is then passed as a challenge response to Amazon Cognito and verified using the stored public key.

In this password-less flow, the private key has never left the physical device, the authenticator also validates that relying party in authentication request matches the relying party that was used to create the credentials. This combination provides a more secured authentication flow that uses stronger credentials, protects user from phishing and provides better user experience.

About the demo project

This blog post and the diagrams below explain a scenario that uses FIDO as the only authentication factor, to implement password-less authentication. To help with implementation details, I created a project to demonstrate WebAuthn integration with Amazon Cognito that provides sample code for three scenarios:

  • A scenario that uses FIDO as the only factor (password-less)
  • A scenario that uses FIDO as a second factor (with password)
  • A scenario that lets users sign-in with only a password

This project is only a demonstration and shouldn’t be used as-is in production environments. When using FIDO as authentication factor, it is a best practice to allow users to register multiple authenticators and you need to implement an account recovery workflow in case of a lost authenticator.

Implementing FIDO Authentication

Let’s take a deeper dive into the design and components involved in implementing this solution. To deploy this project in your development environment, follow the instructions in the WebAuthn integration with Amazon Cognito project.

Creating and configuring user pool

The first step is to create a Cognito user pool and triggers that orchestrate a custom authentication flow. You do that by deploying the CloudFormation stack that will create all resources as explained in the demo project.

Few implementation details to note about the user pool:

  • The template creates a user pool, app client, triggers, and Lambda functions to use for custom authentication.
  • The template creates a custom attribute called publicKeyCred. This is the custom attribute that holds a base64 encoded representation of the credential identifier and public key for the user’s authenticator.
  • The app client defines what authentication flows are allowed. You can limit allowed flows according to your use-case. To support FIDO authentication, you must allow CUSTOM_AUTH flow.
  • The app client has “write” permissions to the custom attribute publicKeyCred but not “read” permissions. This allows your application to write the attribute during registration or profile updates but excludes this attribute from the user’s id_token. Since this attribute is considered back-end data that is only used during authentication, it doesn’t need to be part of user profile in the id_token.

User registration flow

The registration flow needs to create credentials using the authenticator and store the public-key in user’s profile. Let’s take a closer look at the sequence of calls and involved components to implement this flow.
 

Figure 1: WebAuthn user registration process

Figure 1: WebAuthn user registration process

  1. The user navigates to your application, www.example.com (relying party), and creates an account. A request is sent to the relying party to build a credentials options object and send it back to the browser. (in the demo project, this starts in the createCredentials function in webauthn-client.js and creates the credentials options object by making a call to createCredRequest in authn.js)
  2. The browser uses built-in WebAuthn APIs to create the new credentials with an available authenticator using the credentials options object that was created in first step. This is done by making a call to navigator.credentials.create API (this API is available in browsers and platforms that support FIDO and WebAuthn).
  3. The user experience in this step depends on the OS, browser, and the authenticator. For example, the browser could prompt the user to attach a security key or, on devices that support it, to use a biometric scanner.
     
    Figure 2: User registration and browser alert to use an authenticator in Firefox

    Figure 2: User registration and browser alert to use an authenticator in Firefox

  4. The user interacts with an authenticator (by touching a security key or scanning finger on a touch-id device), which generates new credentials bound to the relying party and returns a response object to the browser.
  5. The browser sends a credential response object to the relying party to parse and validate the response on the server-side. The credential identifier and public key are extracted from the credential response. At this step, your application can also check additional authenticator data and use it to make authentication decisions. For example, your application can check if the authenticator was able to verify user identity through PIN or biometrics (UV flag) or only user presence (UP flag) was verified by authenticator. In the demo project, this is still part of createCredentials function and server-side parsing and validation is done in parseCredResponse that is implemented in authn.js
  6. To complete the user registration, the browser passes the profile attributes that have been collected during registration through Amazon Cognito APIs as custom attributes. This step is performed in signUp function in webauthn-client.js

At the conclusion of this process, a new user will be created in Amazon Cognito and the custom attribute “publicKeyCred” will be populated with a base64 encoded string that includes a credential identifier and the public key generated by the authenticator. This attribute is not considered secret or sensitive data, it rather includes the public key that will be used to verify the authenticator response during subsequent authentications.

User authentication flow

The following diagram describes the custom authentication flow to implement password-less authentication.
 

Figure 3: WebAuthn user authentication process

Figure 3: WebAuthn user authentication process

  1. The user provides their user name and selects the sign-in button, script (running in browser) starts the sign-in process using Amazon Cognito InitiateAuth API passing the user name and indicating that authentication flow is CUSTOM_AUTH. In the demo project, this part is performed in the signIn function in webauthn-client.js.
  2. The Amazon Cognito service passes control to the Define Auth Challenge Lambda trigger. The trigger then determines that this is the first step in the authentication and returns CUSTOM_CHALLENGE as the next challenge to the user.
  3. Control then moves to Create Auth Challenge Lambda trigger to create the custom challenge. This trigger creates a random challenge (a 64 bytes random string), extracts the credential identifier from the user profile (the value passed initially during the sign-up process) combines them and returns them as a custom challenge to the client. This is performed in CreateAuthChallenge Lambda function.
  4. The browser then prompts the user to activate an authenticator. At this stage, the authenticator verifies that credentials exist for the identifier and that the relying party matches the one that is bound to the credentials. This is implemented by making a call to navigator.credentials.get API that is available in browsers and devices that support FIDO2 and WebAuthn.
     
    Figure 4: Authentication and browser prompt to use a registered authenticator

    Figure 4: Authentication and browser prompt to use a registered authenticator

  5. If credentials exist and the relying party is verified, the authenticator requests a user attention or verification. Depending on the type of authenticator, user verification through biometrics or a PIN code is performed and the credentials response is passed back to the browser.
     
    Figure 5: Authentication examples from different browsers and platforms

    Figure 5: Authentication examples from different browsers and platforms

  6. The signIn function continues the sign-in process by calling respondToAuthChallenge API and sending the credentials response to Amazon Cognito.
  7. Amazon Cognito sends the response to the Verify Auth Challenge Lambda trigger. This trigger extracts the public key from the user profile, parses and validates the credentials response, and if the signature is valid, it responds with success. This is performed in VerifyAuthChallenge Lambda trigger.
  8. Lastly, Amazon Cognito sends the control again to Define Auth Challenge to determine the next step. If the results from Verify Auth Challenge indicate a successful response, authentication succeeds and Amazon Cognito responds with ID, access, and refresh tokens.

Conclusion

When building customer facing applications, you as the application owner and developer need to balance security with usability. Reducing the risk of account take-over and phishing is based on using strong credentials, strong second-factors, and minimizing the role of passwords. The flexibility of Amazon Cognito custom authentication flow integrated with WebAuthn offer a technical path to make this possible in addition to offering better user experience to your customers.

Check out the WebAuthn with Amazon Cognito project for code samples and deployment steps, deploy this in your development environment to see this integration in action and go build an awesome password-less experience in your application.

If you have feedback about this post, submit comments in the Comments section below. If you have questions about this post, start a new thread on the Amazon Cognito forum or contact AWS Support.

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Author

Mahmoud Matouk

Mahmoud is a Senior Solutions Architect with the Amazon Cognito team. He helps AWS customers build secure and innovative solutions for various identity and access management scenarios.