Authenticating users with Supporting Tokens in WCF


A web application used by a great number of users calls a Web service by sending messages across a network, sometimes through one or more intermediaries. The web service needs to identify the user logged in the web application somehow to update data or initiate a business processes. Some of the data within the messages is considered to be sensitive in nature so it need to be protected.

The ideal scenario here is to use message security with a username token to identify the logged user. Identify the user with a X509 certificate is not practical due to the high number of users.


How do you authenticate the user without sending the password on every web service call ?


Any of the following conditions justifies using the solution described in this pattern:

  • Keeping the username/password in memory on the web application is not secure. An attacker can gain access to that sensitive data whenever it leaves a secure area (such as a protected memory space).
  • Sending a username without password: An attacker could pose as a legitimate sender and send falsified messages, the message recipient can not verify that incoming messages originated from a legitimate sender.


    Use a combination of a Mutual X509 Binding with a Usernametoken (Without password) as supporting token. The mutual X509 binding allows message signing and encryption using X.509 certificates. This binding accesses the client's private key, which is used to sign the message, and the service's public key to encrypts the message. The service decrypts the message using its private key and verifies the signature using the public key of the client. The public key is in the client's X.509 certificate, which is included with the message.
    The service's public key can be obtained out-of-band from a X509 certificate installed on the client machine or through a negotiation with the service.

    Each token has a different purpose:

    1. A Client X509 token for the web application, it used for data origin authentication, which enables the recipient to verify that messages have not been tampered with in transit (data integrity) and that they originate from the expected sender (In this case, the trusted web site).

    2. Service X509 token, it is used to encrypt and protect sensitive data that is contained in a message

    3. Username token, it is used identify the user that originally make the service call.


  • Fortunately, the WCF SDK comes with examples that demonstrates the following:


    • Is this smart? The client can lie about his identity, what if it applied a username token with the username set to, let's say, Administrator?

    • Hi Joost,

      Of course, a trust boundary should exist between the web application and the service. If the web client sends the correct X509 client certificate and a username, the service will asume that the client is giving the right credentials.


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