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django-sesame

django-sesame

django-sesame provides frictionless authentication with "Magic Links" for your Django project.

It generates URLs containing authentication tokens such as: https://example.com/?sesame=zxST9d0XT9xgfYLvoa9e2myN

Then it authenticates users based on tokens found in URLs.

Table of contents

Use cases

Known use cases for django-sesame include:

  1. Login by email, an increasingly attractive option on mobile where typing passwords is uncomfortable. This technique is prominently deployed by Slack.

    If you're doing this, you should define a small SESAME_MAX_AGE, perhaps 10 minutes.

  2. Authenticated links, typically if you're generating a report offline, then emailing a link to access it when it's ready. An authenticated link works even if the user isn't logged in on the device where they're opening it.

    Likewise, you should configure an appropriate SESAME_MAX_AGE, probably no more than a few days.

    Since emails may be forwarded, authenticated links shouldn't log the user in. They should only allow access to specific views, as described in Per-view authentication.

  3. Sharing links, which are a variant of authenticated links. When a user shares content with a guest, you can create a phantom account for the guest and generate an authenticated link tied to that account.

    Email forwarding is even more likely in this context. If you're doing this, make sure authenticated links don't log the user in.

  4. Non-critical private websites, for example for a family or club site, where users don't expect to manage a personal account with a password. Authorized users can bookmark personalized authenticated URLs.

    Here you can rely on the default settings because that's the original — and, admittedly, niche — use case for which django-sesame was built.

(In)security

Warning

Before using django-sesame in your project, please review the following advice carefully. (Also, please don't use security-sensitive libraries published by strangers on the Internet without checking what they do.)

The major security weakness in django-sesame is a direct consequence of the feature it implements: whoever obtains an authentication token will be able to authenticate to your website.

URLs end up in countless insecure places: emails, referer headers, proxy logs, browser history, etc. You can't avoid that. At best you can mitigate it by creating short-lived or single-use tokens, as described below.

Otherwise, a reasonable attempt was made to provide a secure solution. Tokens are secured with modern cryptography. There are configurable options for token expiration and invalidation.

User guide

Requirements

django-sesame is tested with:

  • Django 2.2 (LTS) and 3.0;
  • Python ≥ 3.6

It builds upon django.contrib.auth. It supports custom user models, provided they have password and last_login fields. Most custom user models inherit these fields from AbstractBaseUser.

django-sesame is released under the BSD license, like Django itself.

Getting started

  1. Install django-sesame:

    $ pip install django-sesame[ua]

    The ua extra is optional. See Safari issues for details.

  2. Add "sesame.backends.ModelBackend" to AUTHENTICATION_BACKENDS:

    AUTHENTICATION_BACKENDS += ["sesame.backends.ModelBackend"]
  3. Add "sesame.middleware.AuthenticationMiddleware" to MIDDLEWARE:

    MIDDLEWARE += ["sesame.middleware.AuthenticationMiddleware"]

    The best position for sesame.middleware.AuthenticationMiddleware is just after django.contrib.auth.middleware.AuthenticationMiddleware.

Generating URLs

django-sesame provides functions to generate authenticated URLs in the sesame.utils module.

Load a user from the database:

>>> from django.contrib.auth import get_user_model
>>> User = get_user_model()
>>> user = User.objects.first()

Now you can create a query string that you can append to any URL to enable one-click login:

>>> from sesame.utils import get_query_string
>>> get_query_string(user)
'?sesame=zxST9d0XT9xgfYLvoa9e2myN'

You can also obtain a dict of parameters rather than ready-to-use query string:

>>> from sesame.utils import get_parameters
>>> get_parameters(user)
{'sesame': 'zxST9d0XT9xgfYLvoa9e2myN'}

Then you can add other parameters to this dict before serializing it to a query string.

Finally, here's how to get only the token:

>>> from sesame.utils import get_token
>>> get_token(user)
'zxST9d0XT9xgfYLvoa9e2myN'

Share the resulting URLs with your users though an adequately confidential channel for your use case.

By default, the URL parameter is named sesame. You can change this with the SESAME_TOKEN_NAME setting. Make sure that it doesn't conflict with other query string parameters used by your application.

Changed in 2.0: the URL parameter used to be named url_auth_token.

Tokens lifecycle

By default, tokens don't expire but are tied to the password of the user. Changing the password invalidates the token. When the authentication backend uses salted passwords — that's been the default in Django for a long time — the token is invalidated even if the new password is identical to the old one.

If you want tokens to expire after a given amount of time, set the SESAME_MAX_AGE setting to a duration in seconds or a datetime.timedelta. Then each token will contain the time it was generated at and django-sesame will check if it's still valid at each login attempt.

If you want tokens to be usable only once, set the SESAME_ONE_TIME setting to True. Then tokens are valid only if the last login date hasn't changed since they were generated. Since logging in changes the last login date, such tokens are usable at most once. If you're intending to send links by email, be aware that some email providers scan links for security reasons, which consumes single-use tokens prematurely. Tokens with a short expiry are more reliable.

If you don't want tokens to be invalidated by password changes, set the SESAME_INVALIDATE_ON_PASSWORD_CHANGE setting to False. This is discouraged because it becomes impossible to invalidate a single token. Your only option if a token is compromised is to invalidate all tokens at once. If you're doing it anyway, you should set SESAME_MAX_AGE to a short value to minimize risks. This option may be useful for generating tokens during a sign up process, when you don't know if the token will be used before or after initializing the password.

Finally, if the is_active attribute of a user is set to False, django-sesame rejects authentication tokens for this user.

Tokens must be verified with the same settings that were used for generating them. Changing settings invalidates previously generated tokens. The only exception to this rule is SESAME_MAX_AGE: as long as it isn't None, you can change its value and the new value will apply even to previously generated tokens.

Per-view authentication

The configuration described in Getting started enables a middleware that looks for a token in every request and, if there is a valid token, logs the user in. It's as if they had submitted their username and password in a login form. This provides compatibility with APIs like the login_required decorator and the LoginRequired mixin.

Sometimes this behavior is too blunt. For example, you may want to build a Magic Link that gives access to a specific view but doesn't log the user in permanently.

To achieve this, remove "sesame.middleware.AuthenticationMiddleware" from the MIDDLEWARE setting and authenticate the user with django-sesame in a view as follows:

from django.core.exceptions import PermissionDenied
from django.http import HttpResponse

from sesame.utils import get_user

def hello(request):
    user = get_user(request)
    if user is None:
        raise PermissionDenied
    return HttpResponse("Hello {}!".format(user))

When get_user() returns None, it means that the token was missing, invalid, expired, or that the user account is inactive. Then you can show an appropriate error message or redirect to a login form.

When SESAME_ONE_TIME is enabled, get_user() updates the user's last login date in order to invalidate the token. When SESAME_ONE_TIME isn't enabled, it doesn't, because making a database write for every call to get_user() could degrade performance. You can override this behavior with the update_last_login keyword argument:

get_user(request, update_last_login=True)   # always update last_login
get_user(request, update_last_login=False)  # never update last_login

get_user() is a thin wrapper around the low-level authenticate() function from django.contrib.auth. It's also possible to verify an authentication token directly with authenticate(). To do so, the sesame.backends.ModelBackend authentication backend expects an sesame argument:

from django.contrib.auth import authenticate

user = authenticate(sesame=...)

Changed in 2.0: the argument used to be named url_auth_token.

If you decide to use authenticate() instead of get_user(), you must update user.last_login to invalidate one-time tokens. Indeed, in django.contrib.auth, authenticate() is a low-level function. The caller, usually the higher-level login() function, is responsible for updating user.last_login.

Advanced topics

Safari issues

The django-sesame middleware removes the token from the URL with a HTTP 302 Redirect after authenticating a user successfully. Unfortunately, in some scenarios, this triggers Safari's "Protection Against First Party Bounce Trackers". In that case, Safari clears cookies and the user is logged out.

To avoid this problem, django-sesame doesn't perform the redirect when it detects that the browser is Safari. This relies on the ua-parser package, which is an optional dependency. If it isn't installed, django-sesame always redirects.

Tokens security

django-sesame builds authentication tokens as follows:

  • Encode the primary key of the user for which they were generated;
  • Assemble a revocation key which will be used for invalidating tokens;
  • If SESAME_MAX_AGE is enabled, encode the token generation timestamp;
  • Add a message authentication code (MAC) to prevent tampering with the token.

The revocation key is derived from:

  • The password of the user, unless SESAME_INVALIDATE_ON_PASSWORD_CHANGE is disabled;
  • The last login date of the user, if SESAME_ONE_TIME is enabled.

Primary keys are in clear text. If this is a concern, you can write a custom packer to encrypt them. See Custom primary keys for details.

django-sesame provides two token formats:

  • v1 is the original format, which still works as designed;
  • v2 is a better, cleaner, faster design that produces shorter tokens.

The SESAME_TOKENS setting lists supported formats in order of decreasing preference. The first item defines the format of newly created tokens. Other items define other acceptable formats, if any.

SESAME_TOKENS defaults to ["sesame.tokens_v2", "sesame.tokens_v1"] which means "generate tokens v2, accept tokens v2 and v1".

Tokens v2

They contain a primary key, an optional timestamp, and a signature.

The signature covers the primary key, the optional timestamp, and the revocation key. If the revocation key changes, the signature becomes invalid. As a consequence, there's no need to include the revocation key in tokens.

The signature algorithm is Blake2 in keyed mode. A unique key is derived by hashing the SECRET_KEY setting and relevant SESAME_* settings.

By default the signature length is 10 bytes. You can adjust it to any value between 1 and 64 bytes with the SESAME_SIGNATURE_SIZE setting.

If you need to invalidate all tokens, set the SESAME_KEY setting to a new value. This will change the unique key and, as a consequence, invalidate all signatures.

Tokens v1

Tokens v1 contain a primary key and a revocation key, plus an optional timestamp and a signature generated by Django's built-in Signer or TimestampSigner.

The signature algorithm HMAC-SHA1.

If you need to invalidate all tokens, you can set the SESAME_SALT setting to a new value. This will change all signatures.

Custom primary keys

When generating a token for a user, django-sesame stores the primary key of that user in the token. In order to keep tokens short, django-sesame creates compact binary representations of primary keys, according to their type.

If you're using integer or UUID primary keys, you're fine. If you're using another type of primary key, for example a string created by a unique ID generation algorithm, the default representation may be suboptimal.

For example, let's say primary keys are strings containing 24 hexadecimal characters. The default packer represents them with 25 bytes. You can reduce them to 12 bytes with this custom packer:

from sesame.packers import BasePacker

class Packer(BasePacker):

    @staticmethod
    def pack_pk(user_pk):
        assert len(user_pk) == 24
        return bytes.fromhex(user_pk)

    @staticmethod
    def unpack_pk(data):
        return data[:12].hex(), data[12:]

Then, set the SESAME_PACKER setting to the dotted Python path to your custom packer class.

For details, read help(BasePacker) and look at built-in packers defined in the sesame.packers module.

Stateless authentication

Theoretically, django-sesame can provide stateless authenticated navigation without django.contrib.sessions, provided all internal links include the authentication token. That increases the security concerns and it's unclear that it meets any practical use case.

In a scenario where django.contrib.sessions.middleware.SessionMiddleware and django.contrib.auth.middleware.AuthenticationMiddleware aren't enabled, sesame.middleware.AuthenticationMiddleware still sets request.user to the currently logged-in user or AnonymousUser().

Infrequently asked questions

Is django-sesame usable without passwords?

Yes, it is.

You should call user.set_unusable_password() when you create users.

How do I understand why a token is invalid?

Enable debug logs by setting the sesame logger to the DEBUG level.

import logging
logger = logging.getLogger("sesame")
logger.setLevel(logging.DEBUG)
logger.addHandler(logging.StreamHandler())

Then you should get a hint in logs.

Depending on how logging is set up in your project, there may by another way to enable this configuration.

Why does upgrading Django invalidate tokens?

Each release of Django increases the work factor of password hashers. After deploying a new version of Django, when a user logs in with their password, Django upgrades the password hash. This invalidates the user's token.

This problem occurs only when a user logs in alternatively with a long-lived token and with a password, which isn't frequent in practice. If you're facing it, you should regenerate and redistribute tokens after upgrading Django.

Other workarounds, such as disabling token invalidation on password change or using a custom hasher to keep the work factor constant, are discouraged because they create security concerns.

Contributing

Prepare a development environment:

  • Install Poetry.
  • Run poetry install --extras ua.
  • Run poetry shell to load the development environment.

Make changes:

  • Make changes to the code, tests, or docs.
  • Run make style and fix any flake8 violations.
  • Run make test or make coverage to run the set suite — it's fast!

Iterate until you're happy.

Check quality and submit your changes:

  • Install tox.
  • Run tox to test across Python and Django versions — it's quite slow.
  • Submit a pull request.

Changelog

2.0

  • Introduced a faster and shorter token format (v2). The previous format (v1) is still supported. See Tokens security.
  • Added the get_token() function to generate a token.
  • Backwards-incompatible Changed the default URL parameter to sesame. If you need to preserve existing URLs, you can set SESAME_TOKEN_NAME = "url_auth_token".
  • Backwards-incompatible Changed the argument expected by authenticate() to sesame. You're affected only if you're explicitly calling authenticate(url_auth_token=...). If so, change this call to authenticate(sesame=...).
  • SESAME_MAX_AGE can be a datetime.timedelta.
  • Improved documentation.

1.8

  • Added compatibility with custom user models with most types of primary keys, including BigAutoField, SmallAutoField, other integer fields, CharField and BinaryField.
  • Added the ability to customize how primary keys are stored in tokens.
  • Added compatibility with Django ≥ 3.0.

1.7

  • Fixed invalidation of one-time tokens in get_user().

1.6

  • Fixed detection of Safari on iOS.

1.5

  • Added support for single use tokens with the SESAME_ONE_TIME setting.
  • Added support for not invalidating tokens on password change with the SESAME_INVALIDATE_ON_PASSWORD_CHANGE setting.
  • Added compatibility with custom user models where the primary key is a UUIDField.
  • Added the get_user() function to obtain a user instance from a request.
  • Improved error message for preexisting tokens when changing the SESAME_MAX_AGE setting.
  • Fixed authentication on Safari by disabling the redirect which triggers ITP.

1.4

  • Added a redirect to the same URL with the query string parameter removed.

1.3

  • Added compatibility with Django ≥ 2.0.

1.2

  • Added the ability to rename the query string parameter with the SESAME_TOKEN_NAME setting.
  • Added compatibility with Django ≥ 1.8.

1.1

  • Added support for expiring tokens with the SESAME_MAX_AGE setting.

1.0

  • Initial release.
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