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A Solution to the Most Common Rails Authentication Problem

By Tim Case · Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Tags: ruby, rails

Q: What's one of the most common authentication related mistakes?

A: Forgetting to write the code that triggers authentication.

Q: What can we do about it?

A: Make it easier to test authentication.

The most common authentication problem that probably affects every Rails app is forgetting or overlooking the implementation of the authentication. In Rails, this generally means forgetting to add a controller before filter to verify the user is authenticated for actions that should be protected. Let me be the first to admit that I'm guilty of doing this myself but I've noticed it occurring in all Rails apps that I've worked on.

Having seen this problem, committed it myself, and being bothered by it, I've come up with a small solution that is my humble attempt to solve the problem by making it easier to track what is being authenticated and what isn't. Before I show the solution I want to divulge that the current implementation has some shortcomings which I will explain towards the end of the article, but I feel it's still a worthwhile solution in the form of the "good outweighs the bad".

The solution is to provide helpers that make it easy to unit test the authentication of controllers. I'm sure this has been done before but I've not found a standard way to do this so I'm going to propose one. Here is a code example:

The solution in a nutshell:

require 'test_helper'

class InquiriesControllerTest < ActionController::TestCase

  verify_require_authenticate :edit, :update
  verify_do_not_require_authenticate :new, :create


class InquiriesNotifiersController < ApplicationController
  before_filter :authenticate, only: [:edit, :update]
  before_filter :do_not_authenticate, only: [:new, :create]

  def new

  def create

  def edit

  def update

I created a test helper which allows you to add to add three lines of code to verify your authentication:

  1. verify_authentication_declared - Does two different things:

    1. Checks that all actions in your controller are explicitly listed in the tested controller's before_filters. In my example I have two before_filters that call :authenticate and :do_not_authenticate.
    2. Checks that no actions are listed for both :authenticate, and do not :authenticate.
  2. verify_require_authenticate - Allows the developer to specify what actions are intended to be authenticated

  3. verify_do_not_authenticate - Allows the developer to specify what actions don't require authentication, notice that this is different than just not setting the before_filter for :authenticate, what this does is clearly communicate the intent that the action should not be authenticated.

How to implement:

  1. Grab the test helper in this gist and place it in your test folder alongside 'test_helper.rb', name it 'auth_test_helper.rb'
  2. In 'test_helper.rb', require the auth_test_helper and extend TestHelper with it: require 'auth_test_helper' class ActiveSupport::TestCase extend AuthTestHelper
  3. If your solution uses an authentication before_filter with a different name than authenticate then you can either change the name in 'auth_test_helper.rb' or you can add an alias in your application controller, and then use the alias in your controllers. For example:
class ApplicationController
  def authenticate

def ProductsController < ApplicationController
  before_filter :authenticate, only: [:new]

  def new

Important note: the auth tests look for the :only symbol to determine which actions are covered so mod AuthTestHelper if you want to use :except.

Alternatively, you can use the :authenticate method to actually perform the authentication. This would be the choice if you roll your own authentication:

  def authenticate
    redirect_to login_url, alert: "Please login, and you'll be sent to the page you tried to access." if current_user.nil?
  1. Add a method to ApplicationController for do_not_authenticate, the method doesn't actually do anything and serves only to make it possible to declare which actions are not authenticated ``` class ApplicationController def authenticate require_login end

def do_not_authenticate end end

def ProductsController < ApplicationController before_filter :authenticate, only: [:new] before_filter :do_not_authenticate, only: [:edit] def new end

def edit end end ```

  1. In your test for the controller add three lines of verify code:
  verify_require_authenticate :edit, :update
  verify_do_not_require_authenticate :new, :create

Only :verify_require_authenticate and :verify_do_not_require_authenticate accept parameters and those will be symbols of the methods that they verify.

Shortcomings of this Approach:

  1. It could be argued that this isn't a solution merely moving the problem out into the tests. By that I mean, if the developer doesn't implement the three line verify block then there again can be the problem of forgotten authentication. My idea to address this was to have :verify_authentication_declared automatically executed for each controller test but as of this writing I couldn't get it to technically work.
  2. The verify methods throw exceptions instead of making failed assertions. This is wrong from a testing sense, the verify methods for authentication should be asserts like any other test, and throwing an exception should be reserved for when something unusual happens.

Despite the shortcomings listed above, I still think the good outweighs the bad, and if over time these tests prove themselves to be valuable I'm going to fix the shortcomings, for now I'm going to present the idea and let people play with it.

Source code

Gist for AuthTestHelper