Securing your API for mobile access

So I have been thinking about potential options regarding securing a server side API for use by mobile apps. No matter what question you ask on the stack exchange network, the answer will always come back as "you should really use oauth", which I guess we should consider as a half truth.

Having used OAuth on several occasions as a client (accessing Facebook/Twitter/LinkedIn/GitHub etc), it was naturally the first option that came to mind for securing my API.


My requirements right now are simple:
  • I am experimenting building an Android mobile app that will use a server API (webapp & API will be built using Java & Spring stack)
  • The app I am experimenting is mobile-only (no web client)
  • It is not going to become a public API (e.g. won't be supporting other apps/sites)


I guess the key point is that I only intend to expose the API to my mobile app, and not have lots of comsumers of the API - and given the complexity of implementing OAuth, it seemed like it would be overkill as a solution.  A big benefit of OAuth is that it supports client/application keys.


So I started looking around for other ideas as to how to do this - I was (and still am) curious as to how Twitter/Instagram secure their APIs for their own applications - I know that the Twitter API is secured for public use using OAuth, but the interesting question is how they secure their own application key/secret. The problem with mobile apps is that an application key needs to be stored on the device - and whilst Twitter offers severely throttled API access using OAuth (register an application, get a secret app key etc), their own apps are obviously not throttled, so it seems like it would be a challenge to keep their application key secured, as if its in the app code, then its subject to de-compilation.

Anyway, getting close to resigning to the fact that I was going to have to use OAuth I came across this one-pager from Google. The guide suggests a much simplified approach with the following basic steps:

  • Build an webapp on your server that has a login page 
  • From your mobile app, embed a WebView of the login page
  • Upon login to your app, return a cookie with a token value that can be used to log in your user on future requests - ideally re-using your frameworks Remember-Me type services so not to have to hand-roll your own
  • On every API request include the token in your request header to authenticate (again using the Remember Me services)

The fact that it was a suggested approach from Google is pretty good, and it's a tonne simpler than negotiating the OAuth dance, so I thought I would have a look at getting this setup.


This is all good - but really, the advice to use OAuth is a half-truth, as if you ever have to scale your application, and think you might one day have/want to open it up do other developers/clients then OAuth is the way to go - You won't get much love from third-party developers with a non-standard approach to securing your API.


So.. how can it be done with Spring? I will cover that in my next post later this/next week!

rob hinds

I'm on to the next one, on to the next one..

2 comments:

  1. OUATH is a delegated identity authorization protocol with 4 participants. I believe, one has to have an authentication layer on top of it if you'd like to leverage OUTH like for eg:; openId connect. I'm not sure whether you can do authentication with OUTH alone. Authentication can also be done using protocols like STS, SAML (within enterprise), PKI. At this point, we've a requirement to authenticate subject using multi-factor authentication from devices like mobile. Please share inputs if you've been able to do it with OUTH as i can easily secure end-point resources like SOA implementation using REST using CMS (container managed security) using Authorization header (Basic, Digest, client-cert) etc., Which authorization grant are you planning to use to authenticate subject?

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