What is a JSON Web Token?

"A JSON Web Token (JWT), pronounced 'jot', is a compact URL-safe means of representing claims to be transferred between two parties. The claims in a JWT are encoded as a JSON object that is digitally signed using JSON Web Signature (JWS)".

How we used to do authentication

Basic Auth Flow

HTTP is a stateless protocol. That means it doesn't remember anything from request to request. If you login for one request, you'll be forgotten, and will need to login again to make another request. As you can imagine, this can get very annoying fast.

The old-school solution has been to create what's called a "session". A session is implemented in two parts:

  1. An object stored on the server that remembers if a user is still logged in, a reference to their profile, etc.
  2. A cookie on the client-side that stores some kind of ID that can be referenced on the server against the session object's ID.

Cookie-based Auth

Cookie-based Auth Flow

If a user visits a web page (makes a request) and the server detects a session cookie, it will check if it currently has a session stored with the ID from the cookie, and if that object is still valid (whatever that means: not expired, not revoked, not blacklisted, etc.).

If the session is still valid, it will respond with the requested web page (or data). If it finds a session object, that object can contain data in it and with that, the server can "remember" who you are and what you were doing (e.g., if this is an ecommerce store, what products you've added to our shopping cart).

If the session is not valid (or no session cookie was detected) it will respond with some sort of error message saying that the request is "unauthorized".

New sessions can typically be created by sending a username/password combination to a specific endpoint from a login page. If the server can match a user with that username and password, it will generate a new session object on the server and set a cookie on the client with the session's ID for any future requests.

If a user turns off their computer and comes back to the website some time in the future, s/he can either automatically login again (if there is still a cookie in the browser that hasn't expired) or login again through the login page. Once logged in, the user's session can be retrieved again from the data stored on the server, and the user can go on with their business (e.g., continuing to shop after reloading your shopping cart).

This type of setup has worked pretty well for us since the web came out and since we've been visiting web sites that do most of their "thinking" on the server side. Typically this has been a conversation between the user's frontend browser and a corresponding backend server in a one-to-one relationship.

Multi-server Cookie Auth Flow is Broken

This setup still works, but these days we have many different situations that require different setups (e.g., multiple mobile native apps alongside large single-page web apps contacting multiple backend services, that may be nothing more than json data without a webpage at all). In these types of scenarios, the cookie you get from one server, won't correspond (or even be sent) to another server (let alone the problems that get created with CORS).

Drawbacks With Cookie-based Auth

Complex Multi-server Cookie Auth Flow

JSON Web Tokens Are Better

JWTs don't use sessions, have no problem with native apps, and actually don't even need special CSRF protections, and they works like a charm with CORS.

JWT Auth Flow

With JWT you register yourself with an app (much the same way you would with an old-school app) and you login with your credentials (e.g., username/password, or 3rd party OAuth). But instead of making a session and setting a cookie, the server will send you a JSON Web Token instead. Now you can use that token to do whatever you want to do with the server (that you have authorization to do).

Think of it like a hotel key: you register at the front-desk, and they give you one of those plastic electronic keys with which you can access your room, the pool, and the garage, but you can't open other people's rooms or go into the manager's office. And, like a hotel key, when your stay has ended, you're simply left with a useless piece of plastic (i.e., the token doesn't do anything anymore after it's expired).

Multi-server JWT Auth Flow

In a multi-server setup, you could also imagine a JWT akin to a "Festival Pass" like you would get at a film or music festival. Whereas an individual movie ticket will grant you access to a single movie (from which you can leave to get popcorn or use the restroom and return), a Festival Pass will grant you access to any movie in the entire festival at different locations at different times. In the same way, you can take your JWT generated from one server, and use it to authenticate with totally different servers (on different domains) which share the same verification method (e.g., share a secret). Each of those other servers don't need to "call home" to ask if the token is ok, because they can simply do a quick computation on the token itself and check its signature and expiration time directly without incurring a hit to the database or an additional network request.

How JWT Works

A JWT is self-contained. When you create one, it has all the necessary pieces you need to do the things you want to do on a server packaged up inside it. There are 3 main parts, separated by a ".":

  1. a header
  2. a payload
  3. a signature

The header normally contains two things: 1. the type of the token (how the payload can be interpreted), and 2. the name of the algorithm used to make the signature (e.g., {typ: 'JWT', alg: 'HS256'}). This gets encoded into base64.

The payload is a JSON object of data. You can put whatever you want in it (e.g., {userId: 2} or maybe even {userId: 2, admin: true}. This also gets encoded into base64.

The signature is a hash of the encoded header, the encoded payload, and a "secret" key that you provide (stored safely on the server) using the algorithm defined in the header.

At the end, you get a string that looks something like "xxxxxxxx.yyyyy.zzzzzzzz" where "x" is the encoded header, "y" is the encoded payload, and "z" is the encrypted signature.

The header and payload can be easily decoded on the front-end or the back-end to retrieve any information you want in there (it's just base64). Keep this in mind because these values are essentially "public", so don't put any private information in there like a credit card number or a password or something.

Whenever you make a request to the server, you send the token with your request. Typically this is done in the authorization header like "Authorization: Bearer xxxxxx.yyyyy.zzzzzz". But it could also be passed in a POST body or in the URL itself as a query parameter. When the server sees the token, it decodes it and compares the signature with the secret it has stored which would have been used to generate the token in the first place. If everything matches, the request is authentic, and it responds with data, otherwise it sends back an error message.

Here's a real token example. You can use this nice service jwt.io to easily inspect the token if you want to see what's inside it.


The server takes information from the token's payload (e.g., like a "userId") and constructs its response accordingly. This is how the server "remembers" the user... because it can use the id it finds to check the user's name and other profile information against it's account in the database (or it can simply use what data is in the payload directly without hitting the database at all). If special access rights have been granted to the user, those can be retrieved from the token as well (e.g., admin privileges).

The key to all this (pun intended) is the "secret" string that is stored on the server. This is a piece of information that only the server knows which is used to make new tokens and validate existing ones. Because the server is the only thing that knows the secret, it prevents unauthorized access by attackers because it would be technically too difficult to decrypt a captured signature, or to guess the secret in order to spoof a contrived signature before an issued token expires. Remember to never share your secret with anybody and to send it to your server over a secure line (e.g., using SSH).

You can also setup other servers to use the same secret so that a token created by one server could also be used to authenticate with a completely different server (client to server, or server to server). More advanced setups can also be created using JWA (JSON Web Algorithms) where a central auth server stores a single secret and third-party servers receive a public key generated from that secret and use the public key to request authentication services from the auth server when the third-party server gets a request (suffice it to say, there are lots of different ways of setting things up; it's very flexible).

If an attacker tries to tamper with the payload data (e.g., to give themselves admin rights), the corresponding signature won't match (because the signature was generated from the original data in the payload) and as such that token won't be considered valid on the server and any requests made with it will be denied. The only way to create an authentic token is with the secret (which should only be on the server and never published).

A JWT can also include other useful information in its payload, called "claims". Most important is an expiry date. If an expiry date is included, the token will automatically become invalid when that date has passed.

Standard JWT Claims

There is a set of standard properties you can use in your payload to handle different use-cases in your app. Claims like this can be used to increase the security of your system to prevent a number of different kinds of attacks. Be sure to check what's available in the library you choose.

Example payload:

  "iss": "http://example.org",  
  "aud": "http://example.com",  
  "iat": 1356999524,  
  "nbf": 1357000000,  
  "exp": 1407019629,  
  "jti": "id123456",  
  "typ": "https://example.com/register",  
  "custom-property": "foo",  
  "name": "Rob McLarty",  
  "id": 78  

How to Invalidate a JWT

The coolest part of a JWT is that its claims can include its expiration settings and because the signature is a function of the hash of these settings, all the server needs to do is check the expiration info when it verifies the token and reject it if it has expired. What this means is that you don't need to worry too much about it. After issuing a token, just leave it out in the wild and let it die on its own.

Obviously not every app can afford to do this. Sometimes having a valid token out in the open for even an day is potentially too long (e.g., perhaps to grant a user access to their account if they forgot their password). Sometimes you may only want a token to be used once-only (e.g., for a password reset). Other times you may have a malicious user registered in your system whom you want to ban altogether so that any tokens they've already created can't be used to access the system anymore.

These scenarios can be handled (if needed) through a combination of JWT claims and server-side mechanisms. Keep the following options in mind when considering token invalidation and expiry:

The first option simply "throws out" the token and lets it expire on its own.

The second option is a bit more involved in that it tracks actual tokens stored on the server (e.g., in a database or key/value store) and uses this list during token verification to check if a token has been blacklisted. This is kind of the opposite of session stores, but it's still more performant because as tokens naturally expire, they can simply be removed from the blacklist. The blacklist is only needed to invalidate a token that has not yet expired.

Finally, in general, you should keep your token expiration times short anyway (like under 24 hours; maybe just 1 or 2 hours) so that in a worst-case scenario, an attacker only has less than a day to take advantage (which is likely not nearly enough time to brute-force the signature's encryption, even with a super-computer... the jury's still out on quantum computers).

Advantages of JWTs

That's it! Go forth and free yourself from your cookie oppressors!