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Auth0, Expo, and React Native: Authorization Code Grant Flow with PKCE

Posted on August 20, 2020

This post is mirrored on my Medium account

Motivation: Never Log In Again!

I was trying to implement the PKCE flow on my React Native application so that I could renew access tokens on the user’s behalf. With this type of flow, a user only has to authenticate once 1. After this initial authentication, we securely store each user’s refresh token, and can use it later to get another access token / refresh token pair exactly at the moment their current access token expires. (My application has an extra security step in that I have chosen to rotate the refresh tokens - with Auth0 this is an optional setting, but recommended).

Alas, at the end of the day, my troubles had nothing to do with all these big scary-sounding cryptography words. It was an issue with environments, deprecated libraries, and dependencies!

Introducing PKCE: Proof Key for Code Exchange

The aforementioned flow of ‘renewing an access token on behalf of a user’ is possible with a refresh token, and to get a refresh token via Auth0, we can use Proof Key for Code Exchange, or PKCE. With Auth0, the PKCE flow can be achieved by implementing a call to a pair of endpoints:

  1. a GET request on /authorize
  2. a POST request on /oauth/token

The flow is as follows:

  • On the GET request you provide a code_challenge among a few other variables, getting a one time use authorization code
  • On the POST request you provide the code_verifier which was used to produce the code_challenge along with the code you just received, to get the access_token, refresh_token, and id_token.

Sounds simple enough… but it’s never that easy, right? Here’s some code that I hunted down from this GitHub thread for programming the GET endpoint within an Expo project:

import { AuthSession } from 'expo';
import * as Crypto from 'expo-crypto';
import * as Random from 'expo-random';

function URLEncode(str) {
    return str.replace(/\+/g, '-')
        .replace(/\//g, '_')
        .replace(/=/g, '');
}

async function sha256(buffer) {
    return await Crypto.digestStringAsync(Crypto.CryptoDigestAlgorithm.SHA256, buffer, { encoding: Crypto.CryptoEncoding.BASE64 });
}

const randomBytes = await Random.getRandomBytesAsync(32);
let verifier = URLEncode(btoa(randomBytes.toString()));
let challenge = URLEncode(await sha256(verifier));

const redirectUrl = AuthSession.getRedirectUrl();
let authUrl = `${auth0Domain}/authorize?` + this.toQueryString({
    audience: `${auth0Audience}`,
    client_id: `${auth0ClientID}`,
    connection: 'facebook',
    scope: 'openid profile email offline_access',
    redirect_uri: redirectUrl,
    response_type: 'code',
    code_challenge: challenge,
    code_challenge_method: "S256"
    nonce: 'test',
});

const result = await AuthSession.startAsync({
    authUrl: authUrl
});

console.log(JSON.stringify(result));

With this code, I was able to get a success response object, i.e. console.log(JSON.stringify(result)); yields:

{"type":"success","params":{"code":"t8-0Tq-lWvKugR8S","state":"3eyxl4n15j"},"errorCode":null,"url":"exp://127.0.0.1:19000/--/expo-auth-session?code=t8-0Tq-lWvKugR8S&state=3eyxl4n15j"}

but then, upon using the returned code and my code_verifier in my POST request I was always getting the error:

{"error":"access_denied","error_description":"Unauthorized"}

Shaking my head at the not very useful error message, I tried and tried with various combinations and slight tweaks, all to no avail. My frustration led me even to open an issue on the Auth0 community 2.

jmangelo was the first to reply:

If you haven’t done so already I would suggest for you to do the flow outside of the application, for example Postman or another tool that can be used to perform the OAuth 2.0 flow. If you replicate the issue outside of the application you have reduced the scope of things to look for which may be useful.

As a first step I would check if the client identifier you’re using is indeed configured to NOT require authentication in the token endpoint. In other words, start by checking that the application in the Auth0 dashboard has Token Endpoint Authentication Method set to none.

I took his advice - taking a step back; going to a totally clean slate. First, I recreated the POST request in Postman as he suggested, where all request fields and parameters could be easily organized and reviewed. Aha! In Postman I got an error message I could work with:

Parameter 'code_verifier' must be between 43 and 128 characters long

I checked the length of the code_verifier variable: 157 characters. Yep. That’s too long. So, to be fully sure of the expected shape of the code_challenge and code_validator parameter, I went ahead and created a blank npm project called crypto-test:

mkdir crypto-test
cd crypto-test
npm init -y

I then put Auth0’s javascript code examples to generate the code_challenge and code_verifier parameters verbatim into index.js and ran it:

const crypto = require("crypto");

function base64URLEncode(str) {
  return str
    .toString("base64")
    .replace(/\+/g, "-")
    .replace(/\//g, "_")
    .replace(/=/g, "");
}

function sha256(buffer) {
  return crypto.createHash("sha256").update(buffer).digest();
}

const code_verifier = base64URLEncode(crypto.randomBytes(32));
const code_challenge = base64URLEncode(sha256(code_verifier));
console.log("code_verifier: " + code_verifier);
console.log("code_challenge: " + code_challenge);

Which resulted in such an output:

code_verifier: XtXt_0n2w4k5mpty1noXyBN-M7DkK6FuCBXfgIa3TrQ
code_challenge: j564Gfuqd2DhQy4l_N9X-fHxxcUejgms6fKvTWBUEA8

So, what do we get? Two strings, both exactly 44 characters in length (trust me, I’ve done enough tests, you always get 44 characters. SHA256 returns 32 bytes, using Base64 encoding on top of that gives you 44 characters. See this StackOverflow thread for the details.)

So the ultimate question became:

Why the heck is our expo-crypto version of the code producing a 157 character length string for our code_verifier? We want the 44 character code_verifier that is produced by the vanilla node project.

My first suspicion was that it was an issue with the package I was using to produce the code_verifier field. After all, Auth0’s official documentation for node recommends using node’s built-in crypto package, and my code snippet was using expo-crypto

“Hey”, I hear you say, “an Expo project is technically a node project… can’t we just npm install --save crypto into our project and use the Auth0 example code examples right away?!” Not so fast. The crypto package as a standalone is deprecated - and at the same time we can’t use the standard included version of crypto from node since React Native does not bundle a complete version of node!

So I was kind of stuck. I needed to hunt down the reason why the expo-crypto and expo-random packages were producing an incorrect code_verifier value…

I did find this blog post from Ryan Rampersad which explained his similar troubles with the crypto and expo-crypto packages. Ultimately his mentioned solution is:

Our compromise in this situation was actually to request the random string and hash from our own API service. This way, we can have unique verifier and challenge strings ready for each user, without app locally making these strings up itself. This is probably secure enough, given that our API service is protected with HTTPS, and if these simple strings are comproised [sic] somehow over the wire, there are even larger targets when going through the Auth0 authentication itself.

I think Ryan was being a little hard on himself since even in the official Auth0 PKCE tutorial they recommend generating a code verifier and challenge in-app (or somewhere in your own code). Regardless, Ryan’s solution didn’t address the specific issue I had encountered: why was this seemingly ‘same’ code using the expo-crypto and expo-random packages were not producing the same results I saw from the vanilla crypto package?

So, I did the hard work. I went line by line, comparing Auth0’s example code with the code snippet of the Expo-equivalent function that I had found on GitHub. It turns out they weren’t exactly equivalent.

The Problem: Always Be Sure About the Types you are Working with!

I saw in the vanilla node version that the code_verifier variable is of type Buffer before it runs through the base64URLEncode function. However, we can see that Expo’s expo-random package getRandomBytesAsync returns a Uint8Array (TypeScript and IntelliSense helped a lot here where I could see the types directly in the code, and didn’t have to hunt down the documentation as I would if it were plain JavaScript).

So in the end, we just need to figure out how to convert the Uint8Array variable to a Base64 encoded Buffer.

An additional problem was that the btoa function on the Uint8Array wasn’t producing the expected 44 character result. So I looked for an alternative way to do it. I finally stumbled upon this StackOverflow thread. I did not go with the accepted answer, but found the node based solution a bit further down, which is:

const base64String = Buffer.from(yourUint8Array).toString('base64');

For TypeScript projects (of which my React Native project was), this requires importing Buffer:

import { Buffer } from 'buffer';

The node buffer package, unlike the crypto package, is not deprecated, and safe to install into our project:

npm install --save buffer

So the error in the original code was in these two lines:

const randomBytes = await Random.getRandomBytesAsync(32);
const verifier = URLEncode(btoa(randomBytes.toString()));

which should become:

const randomBytes = await Random.getRandomBytesAsync(32);
const base64String = Buffer.from(randomBytes).toString('base64');
const code_verifier = URLEncode(base64String);

So, I now give you what you’ve been waiting for. The full code snippet!

import * as AuthSession from 'expo-auth-session';
import * as Crypto from 'expo-crypto';
import * as Random from 'expo-random';
import { AuthSessionResult } from 'expo-auth-session';
import { Buffer } from 'buffer';
import { generateShortUUID } from '../helpers/utilHelpers';
import AsyncStorageService from './AsyncStorageService';
import { getServer } from '../helpers/serverHelpers';

interface StringMap {
    [key: string]: string;
}

function toQueryString(params: StringMap): string {
    return '?' +
        Object.entries(params)
            .map(
                ([key, value]) =>
                    `${encodeURIComponent(key)}=${encodeURIComponent(value)}`
            )
            .join('&');
}

function URLEncode(str): string {
    return str
        .replace(/\+/g, '-')
        .replace(/\//g, '_')
        .replace(/=/g, '');
}

async function sha256(buffer): Promise<string> {
    return await Crypto.digestStringAsync(
        Crypto.CryptoDigestAlgorithm.SHA256,
        buffer,
        { encoding: Crypto.CryptoEncoding.BASE64 }
    );
}

export async function loginPKCEFlow(): Promise<void> {
    const state = generateShortUUID();
    const randomBytes = await Random.getRandomBytesAsync(32);
    const base64String = Buffer.from(randomBytes).toString('base64');
    const code_verifier = URLEncode(base64String);
    const code_challenge = URLEncode(await sha256(code_verifier));
    const redirectUrl = AuthSession.getRedirectUrl();
    const authenticationOptions = {
        response_type: 'code',
        code_challenge: code_challenge,
        code_challenge_method: 'S256',
        client_id: process.env.AUTH0_CLIENT_ID,
        redirect_uri: redirectUrl,
        scope: 'openid profile email offline_access',
        audience: process.env.ROOT_API_URL,
        state,
    };

    const authUrl =
        `${process.env.AUTH0_DOMAIN}authorize` +
        toQueryString(authenticationOptions);

    const result = await AuthSession.startAsync({
        authUrl: authUrl,
    });

    if (
        result.type === 'success' &&
        result.params &&
        result.params.code &&
        result.params.state === state
    ) {
        const code = result.params.code;
        const authorizationCodeResponse = await getServer(
            'authorization-code',
            {
                code,
                codeVerifier: code_verifier,
                redirectUrl,
            }
        );
        if (authorizationCodeResponse.data.accessToken) {
            await AsyncStorageService.setAccessToken(
                authorizationCodeResponse.data.accessToken
            );
        }
    }
}

Note that you’ll need the variables AUTH0_CLIENT_ID, ROOT_API_URL, and AUTH0_DOMAIN all to be set in your environment. You can also see in the final code that I’m utilizing the recommended (though optional) state parameter, by creating a random small string with this little function:

export function generateShortUUID(): string {
    return Math.random()
        .toString(36)
        .substring(2, 15);
}

and ensuring the returned value from the GET call has the same state value. This is one way of reducing your app’s vulnerability to cross-site request forgery (CSRF) attacks. My AsyncStorageService and getServer are just helpful wrappers of mine which go aroundRReactNNative’s AsyncStorage and a standard fetch GET request, respectively. I’ll leave those for you to implement them how you’d like. 😄

Finally, the functions toQueryString, URLEncode, and sha256 would probably best live in another functions file, like util.ts or similar. I’ve just put them all together in the same snippet for easy illustration.

While not in the scope of this post, just a friendly reminder that the subsequent call to the /oauth/token endpoint cannot be made from the frontend (nor should it ever, even if Auth0 let you! To be clear: Auth0 doesn’t let you. 😂)

You have to create your own endpoint on your server to forward the values of code, code_verifier, and redirect_uri. It’s the only secure way to get your hands on the refresh token, since you need to store the refresh tokens in a secure place.

Well, that’s all. I hope others find this post at some point from the chain of blog posts and StackOverflows that I found. You can get PKCE with React Native and Expo all working together in harmony. 👍

Cheers! 🍺

-Chris

Footnotes


  1. There are, of course, technically a few edge cases to this. One case, of course, is if the refresh token itself expires. Then we have no choice but to ask the user to authenticate with an OAuth method again.

    ⇧ Back Up
  2. Which now has a link to this blog post in hopes to help those in the future! 😄

    ⇧ Back Up
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