Implement step-up authentication with Amazon Cognito, Part 1: Solution overview

In this blog post, you’ll learn how to protect privileged business transactions that are exposed as APIs by using multi-factor authentication (MFA) or security challenges. These challenges have two components: what you know (such as passwords), and what you have (such as a one-time password token). By using these multi-factor security controls, you can implement step-up authentication to obtain a higher level of security when you perform critical transactions. In this post, we show you how you can use AWS services such as Amazon API Gateway, Amazon Cognito, Amazon DynamoDB, and AWS Lambda functions to implement step-up authentication by using a simple rule-based security model for your API resources.

Previously, identity and access management solutions have attempted to deliver step-up authentication by retrofitting their runtimes with stateful server-side management, which doesn’t scale in the modern-day stateless cloud-centered application architecture. We’ll show you how to use a pluggable, stateless authentication implementation that integrates into your existing infrastructure without compromising your security or performance. The Amazon API Gateway Lambda authorizer is a pluggable serverless function that acts as an intermediary step before an API action is invoked. This Lambda authorizer, coupled with a small SDK library that runs in the authorizer, will provide step-up authentication.

This solution consists of two blog posts. This is Part 1, where you’ll learn about the step-up authentication solution architecture and design. In the next post, Implement step-up authentication with Amazon Cognito, Part 2: Deploy and test the solution, you’ll learn how to use a reference implementation to test the step-up authentication solution.

Prerequisites

The reference architecture in this post uses a purpose-built step-up authorization workflow engine, which uses a custom SDK. The custom SDK uses the DynamoDB service as a persistent layer. This workflow engine is generic and can be used across any API serving layers, such as API Gateway or Elastic Load Balancing (ELB) Application Load Balancer, as long as the API serving layers can intercept API requests to perform additional actions. The step-up workflow engine also relies on an identity provider that is capable of issuing an OAuth 2.0 access token.

There are three parts to the step-up authentication solution:

  1. An API serving layer with the capability to apply custom logic before applying business logic.
  2. An OAuth 2.0–capable identity provider system.
  3. A purpose-built step-up workflow engine.

The solution in this post uses Amazon Cognito as the identity provider, with an API Gateway Lambda authorizer to invoke the step-up workflow engine, and DynamoDB as a persistent layer used by the step-up workflow engine. You can see a reference implementation of the API Gateway Lambda authorizer in the step-up-auth GitHub repository. Additionally, the purpose-built step-up workflow engine provides two API endpoints (or API actions), /initiate-auth and /respond-to-challenge, which are realized using the API Gateway Lambda authorizer, to drive the API invocation step-up state.

Note: If you decide to use an API serving layer other than API Gateway, or use an OAuth 2.0 identity provider besides Amazon Cognito, you will have to make changes to the accompanying sample code in the step-up-auth GitHub repository.

Solution architecture

Figure 1 shows the high-level reference architecture.

Figure 1: Step-up authentication high-level reference architecture

Figure 1: Step-up authentication high-level reference architecture

First, let’s talk about the core components in the step-up authentication reference architecture in Figure 1.

Identity provider

In order for a client application or user to invoke a protected backend API action, they must first obtain a valid OAuth token or JSON web token (JWT) from an identity provider. The step-up authentication solution uses Amazon Cognito as the identity provider. The step-up authentication solution and the accompanying step-up API operations use the access token to make the step-up authorization decision.

Protected backend

The step-up authentication solution uses API Gateway to protect backend resources. API Gateway supports several different API integration types, and you can use any one of the supported API Gateway integration types. For this solution, the accompanying sample code in the step-up-auth GitHub repository uses Lambda proxy integration to simulate a protected backend resource.

Data design

The step-up authentication solution relies on two DynamoDB tables, a session table and a setting table. The session table contains the user’s step-up session information, and the setting table contains an API step-up configuration. The API Gateway Lambda authorizer (described in the next section) checks the setting table to determine whether the API request requires a step-up session. For more information about table structure and sample values, see the Step-up authentication data design section in the accompanying GitHub repository.

The session table has the DynamoDB Time to Live (TTL) feature enabled. An item stays in the session table until the TTL time expires, when DynamoDB automatically deletes the item. The TTL value can be controlled by using the environment variable SESSION_TABLE_ITEM_TTL. Later in this post, we’ll cover where to define this environment variable in the Step-up solution design details section; and we’ll cover how to set the optimal value for this environment variable in the Additional considerations section.

Authorizer

The step-up authentication solution uses a purpose-built request parameter-based Lambda authorizer (also called a REQUEST authorizer). This REQUEST authorizer helps protect privileged API operations that require a step-up session.

The authorizer verifies that the API request contains a valid access token in the HTTP Authorization header. Using the access token’s JSON web token ID (JTI) claim as a key, the authorizer then attempts to retrieve a step-up session from the session table. If a session exists and its state is set to either STEP_UP_COMPLETED or STEP_UP_NOT_REQUIRED, then the authorizer lets the API call through by generating an allow API Gateway Lambda authorizer policy. If the set-up state is set to STEP_UP_REQUIRED, then the authorizer returns a 401 Unauthorized response status code to the caller.

If a step-up session does not exist in the session table for the incoming API request, then the authorizer attempts to create a session. It first looks up the setting table for the API configuration. If an API configuration is found and the configuration status is set to STEP_UP_REQUIRED, it indicates that the user must provide additional authentication in order to call this API action. In this case, the authorizer will create a new session in the session table by using the access token’s JTI claim as a session key, and it will return a 401 Unauthorized response status code to the caller. If the API configuration in the setting table is set to STEP_UP_DENY, then the authorizer will return a deny API Gateway Lambda authorizer policy, therefore blocking the API invocation. The caller will receive a 403 Forbidden response status code.

The authorizer uses the purpose-built auth-sdk library to interface with both the session and setting DynamoDB tables. The auth-sdk library provides convenient methods to create, update, or delete items in tables. Internally, auth-sdk uses the DynamoDB v3 Client SDK.

Initiate auth endpoint

When you deploy the step-up authentication solution, you will get the following two API endpoints:

  1. The initiate step-up authentication endpoint (described in this section).
  2. The respond to step-up authentication challenge endpoint (described in the next section).

When a client receives a 401 Unauthorized response status code from API Gateway after invoking a privileged API operation, the client can start the step-up authentication flow by invoking the initiate step-up authentication endpoint (/initiate-auth).

The /initiate-auth endpoint does not require any extra parameters, it only requires the Amazon Cognito access_token to be passed in the Authorization header of the request. The /initiate-auth endpoint uses the access token to call the Amazon Cognito API actions GetUser and GetUserAttributeVerificationCode on behalf of the user.

After the /initiate-auth endpoint has determined the proper multi-factor authentication (MFA) method to use, it returns the MFA method to the client. There are three possible values for the MFA methods:

  • MAYBE_SOFTWARE_TOKEN_STEP_UP, which is used when the MFA method cannot be determined.
  • SOFTWARE_TOKEN_STEP_UP, which is used when the user prefers software token MFA.
  • SMS_STEP_UP, which is used when the user prefers short message service (SMS) MFA.

Let’s take a closer look at how /initiate-auth endpoint determines the type of MFA methods to return to the client. The endpoint calls Amazon Cognito GetUser API action to check for user preferences, and it takes the following actions:

  1. Determines what method of MFA the user prefers, either software token or SMS.
  2. If the user’s preferred method is set to software token, the endpoint returns SOFTWARE_TOKEN_STEP_UP code to the client.
  3. If the user’s preferred method is set to SMS, the endpoint sends an SMS message with a code to the user’s mobile device. It uses the Amazon Cognito GetUserAttributeVerificationCode API action to send the SMS message. After the Amazon Cognito API action returns success, the endpoint returns SMS_STEP_UP code to the client.
  4. When the user preferences don’t include either a software token or SMS, the endpoint checks if the response from Amazon Cognito GetUser API action contains UserMFASetting response attribute list with either SOFTWARE_TOKEN_MFA or SMS_MFA keywords. If the UserMFASetting response attribute list contains SOFTWARE_TOKEN_MFA, then the endpoint returns SOFTWARE_TOKEN_STEP_UP code to the client. If it contains SMS_MFA keyword, then the endpoint invokes the Amazon Cognito GetUserAttributeVerificationCode API action to send the SMS message (as in step 3). Upon successful response from the Amazon Cognito API action, the endpoint returns SMS_STEP_UP code to the client.
  5. If the UserMFASetting response attribute list from Amazon Cognito GetUser API action does not contain SOFTWARE_TOKEN_MFA or SMS_MFA keywords, then the endpoint looks for phone_number_verified attribute. If found, then the endpoint sends an SMS message with a code to the user’s mobile device with verified phone number. The endpoint uses the Amazon Cognito GetUserAttributeVerificationCode API action to send the SMS message (as in step 3). Otherwise, when no verified phone is found, the endpoint returns MAYBE_SOFTWARE_TOKEN_STEP_UP code to the client.

The flowchart shown in Figure 2 illustrates the full decision logic.

Figure 2: MFA decision flow chart

Figure 2: MFA decision flow chart

Respond to challenge endpoint

The respond to challenge endpoint (/respond-to-challenge) is called by the client after it receives an appropriate MFA method from the /initiate-auth endpoint. The user must respond to the challenge appropriately by invoking /respond-to-challenge with a code and an MFA method.

The /respond-to-challenge endpoint receives two parameters in the POST body, one indicating the MFA method and the other containing the challenge response. Additionally, this endpoint requires the Amazon Cognito access token to be passed in the Authorization header of the request.

If the MFA method is SMS_STEP_UP, the /respond-to-challenge endpoint invokes the Amazon Cognito API action VerifyUserAttribute to verify the user-provided challenge response, which is the code that was sent by using SMS.

If the MFA method is SOFTWARE_TOKEN_STEP_UP or MAYBE_SOFTWARE_TOKEN_STEP_UP, the /respond-to-challenge endpoint invokes the Amazon Cognito API action VerifySoftwareToken to verify the challenge response that was sent in the endpoint payload.

After the user-provided challenge response is verified, the /respond-to-challenge endpoint updates the session table with the step-up session state STEP_UP_COMPLETED by using the access_token JTI. If the challenge response verification step fails, no changes are made to the session table. As explained earlier in the Data design section, the step-up session stays in the session table until the TTL time expires, when DynamoDB will automatically delete the item.

Deploy and test the step-up authentication solution

If you want to test the step-up authentication solution at this point, go to the second part of this blog, Implement step-up authentication with Amazon Cognito, Part 2: Deploy and test the solution. That post provides instructions you can use to deploy the solution by using the AWS Cloud Development Kit (AWS CDK) in your AWS account, and test it by using a sample web application.

Otherwise, you can continue reading the rest of this post to review the details and code behind the step-up authentication solution.

Step-up solution design details

Now let’s dig deeper into the step-up authentication solution. Figure 3 expands on the high-level solution design in the previous section and highlights the sequence of events that must take place to perform step-up authentication. In this section, we’ll break down these sequences into smaller parts and discuss each by going over a detailed sequence diagram.

Figure 3: Step-up authentication detailed reference architecture

Figure 3: Step-up authentication detailed reference architecture

Let’s group the step-up authentication flow in Figure 3 into three parts:

  1. Create a step-up session (steps 1-6 in Figure 3)
  2. Initiate step-up authentication (steps 7-8 in Figure 3)
  3. Respond to the step-up challenge (steps 9-12 in Figure 3)

In the next sections, you’ll learn how the user’s API requests are handled by the step-up authentication solution, and how the user state is elevated by going through an additional challenge.

Create a step-up session

After the user successfully logs in, they create a step-up session when invoking a privileged API action that is protected with the step-up Lambda authorizer. This authorizer determines whether to start a step-up challenge based on the configuration within the DynamoDB setting table, which might create a step-up session in the DynamoDB session table. Let’s go over steps 1–6, shown in the architecture diagram in Figure 3, in more detail:

  • Step 1 – It’s important to note that the user must authenticate with Amazon Cognito initially. As a result, they must have a valid access token generated by the Amazon Cognito user pool.
  • Step 2 – The user then invokes a privileged API action and passes the access token in the Authorization header.
  • Step 3 – The API action is protected by using a Lambda authorizer. The authorizer first validates the token by invoking the Amazon Cognito user pool public key. If the token is invalid, a 401 Unauthorized response status code can be sent immediately, prompting the client to present a valid token.
  • Step 4 – The authorizer performs a lookup in the DynamoDB setting table to check whether the current request needs elevated privilege (also known as step-up privilege). In the setting table, you can define which API actions require elevated privilege. You can additionally bundle API operations into a group by defining the group attribute. This allows you to further isolate privileged API operations, especially in a large-scale deployment.
  • Step 5 – If an API action requires elevated privilege, the authorizer will check for an existing step-up session for this specific user in the session table. If a step-up session does not exist, the authorizer will create a new entry in the session table. The key for this table will be the JTI claim of the access_token (which can be obtained after token verification).
  • Step 6 – If a valid session exists, then authorization will be given. Otherwise an unauthorized access response (401 HTTP code) will be sent back from the Lambda authorizer, indicating that the user requires elevated privilege.

Figure 4 highlights these steps in a sequence diagram.

Figure 4: Sequence diagram for creating a step-up session

Figure 4: Sequence diagram for creating a step-up session

Initiate step-up authentication

After the user receives a 401 Unauthorized response status code from invoking the privileged API action in the previous step, the user must call the /initiate-auth endpoint to start step-up authentication. The endpoint will return the response to the user or the client application to supply the temporary code. Let’s go over steps 7 and 8, shown in the architecture diagram in Figure 3, in more detail:

  • Step 7 – The client application initiates a step-up action by calling the /initiate-auth endpoint. This action is protected by the API Gateway built-in Amazon Cognito authorizer, and the client needs to pass a valid access_token in the Authorization header.
  • Step 8 – The call is forwarded to a Lambda function that will initiate the step-up action with the end user. The function first calls the Amazon Cognito API action GetUser to find out the user’s MFA settings. Depending on which MFA type is enabled for the user, the function uses different Amazon Cognito API operations to start the MFA challenge. For more details, see the Initiate auth endpoint section earlier in this post.

Figure 5 shows these steps in a sequence diagram.

Figure 5: Sequence diagram for invoking /initiate-auth to start step-up authentication

Figure 5: Sequence diagram for invoking /initiate-auth to start step-up authentication

Respond to the step-up challenge

In the previous step, the user receives a challenge code from the /initiate-auth endpoint. Depending on the type of challenge code, user must respond by sending a one-time password (OTP) to the /respond-to-challenge endpoint. The /respond-to-challenge endpoint invokes an Amazon Cognito API action to verify the OTP. Upon successful verification, the /respond-to-challenge endpoint marks the step-up session in the session table to STEP_UP_COMPLETED, indicating that the user now has elevated privilege. At this point, the user can invoke the privileged API action again to perform the elevated business operation. Let’s go over steps 9–12, shown in the architecture diagram in Figure 3, in more detail:

Figure 6 shows these steps in a sequence diagram.

Figure 6: Invoke the /respond-to-challenge endpoint to complete step-up authentication

Figure 6: Invoke the /respond-to-challenge endpoint to complete step-up authentication

Additional considerations

This solution uses several Amazon Cognito API operations to provide step-up authentication functionality. Amazon Cognito applies rate limiting on all API operations categories, and rapid calls that exceed the assigned quota will be throttled.

The step-up flow for a single user can include multiple Amazon Cognito API operations such as GetUser, GetUserAttributeVerificationCode, VerifyUserAttribute, and VerifySoftwareToken. These Amazon Cognito API operations have different rate limits. The effective rate, in requests per second (RPS), that your privileged and protected API action can achieve will be equivalent to the lowest category rate limit among these API operations. When you use the default quota, your application can achieve 25 SMS_STEP_UP RPS or up to 50 SOFTWARE_TOKEN_STEP_UP RPS.

Certain Amazon Cognito API operations have additional security rate limits per user per hour. For example, the GetUserAttributeVerificationCode API action has a limit of five calls per user per hour. For that reason, we recommend 15 minutes as the minimum value for SESSION_TABLE_ITEM_TTL, as this will allow a single user to have up to four step-up sessions per hour if needed.

Conclusion

In this blog post, you learned about the architecture of our step-up authentication solution and how to implement this architecture to protect privileged API operations by using AWS services. You learned how to use Amazon Cognito as the identity provider to authenticate users with multi-factor security and API Gateway with an authorizer Lambda function to enforce access to API actions by using a step-up authentication workflow engine. This solution uses DynamoDB as a persistent layer to manage the security rules for the step-up authentication workflow engine, which helps you to efficiently manage your rules.

In the next part of this post, Implement step-up authentication with Amazon Cognito, Part 2: Deploy and test the solution, you’ll deploy a reference implementation of the step-up authentication solution in your AWS account. You’ll use a sample web application to test the step-up authentication solution you learned about in this post.

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

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Salman Moghal

Salman Moghal

Salman is a Principal Consultant in AWS Professional Services, based in Toronto, Canada. He helps customers in architecting, developing, and reengineering data-driven applications at scale, with a sharp focus on security.

Thomas Ross

Thomas Ross

Thomas is a Software Engineering student at Carleton University. He worked at AWS as a Professional Services Intern and a Software Development Engineer Intern in Amazon Aurora. He has an interest in almost anything related to technology, especially systems at high scale, security, distributed systems, and databases.

Ozair Sheikh

Ozair Sheikh

Ozair is a senior product leader for Sponsored Display in Amazon ads, based in Toronto, Canada. He helps advertisers and Ad Tech API Partners build campaign management solutions to reach customers across the purchase journey. He has over 10 years of experience in API management and security, with an obsession for delivering highly secure API products.

Mahmoud Matouk

Mahmoud Matouk

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