You may have heard about OAuth authentication before but not really understood how it helps you. That’s fine, we will explain everything here. This technological standard is so important that Google are committed to using it for their Gmail and G Suite services.
What is OAuth and what does it do?
In simple terms, OAuth is a technology standard that enables you to share your details between different services without the need to reveal your password. You are probably already using services that deploy OAuth. It is used widely right now by website developers and with commonly used online apps.
OAuth is an open technological standard released back in 2010. Many well-known companies such as Google and Twitter have adopted it from the beginning and many others have followed suit.
There were a number of revisions to OAuth in the first couple of years and version 2.0 appeared in 2012. This helped it to be even more widely adopted. Giants like Facebook, PayPal, Amazon, LinkedIn, Netflix, Instagram and Microsoft have all adopted it now.
Why OAuth is so important
These days, most people have many different digital accounts. They have online bank accounts, online store accounts, social media accounts and accounts with other websites. To access all of these accounts you need to have a username and password setup.
The sharing of data is now part of our everyday lives. In order to share files with others there is a need to integrate services. Examples of this is being able to share some great content that you found on LinkedIn or photographs that you have taken on Facebook.
You can also link a payment processor like PayPal directly to your bank account. We all want these things in our lives. A few years ago, this kind of integration was very difficult but changes in technology have made this possible.
The problem is that with all of this integration and the sharing of files and data you have to provide access to your personal information to third parties. When you do this, you run the risk of compromising your privacy.
The good news is that the OAuth standard provides a safe way for you to link your different digital accounts. It allows you to keep your personal information secure while you perform the transfer of data with third parties.
Examples of OAuth in action
Have you ever gone to login to a website service and it provides you with the opportunity to log in using your credentials on Facebook or Google for example? This is pretty common nowadays. All you need to do is to select the service that you want and then it will provide the necessary authentication for you.
The website that you want to log in to will accept the authentication credentials provided by websites like Google and Facebook. You do not have to provide any additional information to the third party website.
Another example of OAuth in action is when you want to send files that you have stored in the cloud via email. Let’s assume for this example that you have a Gmail account for email and a Dropbox cloud storage account. There is no relationship between these two services.
So when you are using Gmail and want to attach a file from your Dropbox account, OAuth will work in the background to authenticate the browsing to the Dropbox files seamlessly. You will not have to login to your Dropbox account to enable the attachment of the files.
In both of these examples, you are using one transaction to use two services and not having to login to both of them. This is the power of OAuth. If your browser is up to date then it will support OAuth. The individual services involved will also support the correct version of OAuth.
How OAuth works
In order for OAuth to work you need to be logged in to one of the services that you will use (e.g. Gmail). You will then initiate a transaction that requires the use of an unrelated service, such as attaching a Dropbox file as we used as an example above. This is what happens:
- The service that you are logged in to (e.g. Gmail) will connect with the second service (e.g. Dropbox) on your behalf and will use OAuth to verify your identity.
- The second service will generate a token for onetime use and a unique onetime secret for the specific transaction.
- The first service will provide the token and the secret to your browser.
- Your browser presents this to an authorization provider (this is not always the second service).
- Your browser can then request authentication if the provider has not already authenticated. It will then approve the authorization to the second service.
- Your browser then uses a generated approved access token and passes this to the first service.
- The first service provides this access token to the second service to prove authentication.
- All of this happens seamlessly and you just see your desired transaction occur.
All of these steps are necessary for OAuth to avoid the need for you to log in to the second service.
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