ASP.NET Core Data Protection

Duende IdentityServer makes extensive use of ASP.NET’s data protection feature. It is crucial that you configure data protection correctly before you start using your IdentityServer in production.

In local development, ASP.NET automatically creates data protection keys, but in a deployed environment, you will need to ensure that your data protection keys are stored in a persistent way and shared across all load balanced instances of your IdentityServer implementation. This means you’ll need to choose where to store and how to protect the data protection keys, as appropriate for your environment. Microsoft has extensive documentation here describing how to configure storage and protection of data protection keys.

A typical IdentityServer implementation should include data protection configuration code, like this:

  // Choose an extension method for key persistence, such as 
  // PersistKeysToFileSystem, PersistKeysToDbContext, 
  // PersistKeysToAzureBlobStorage, or PersistKeysToAWSSystemsManager
  // Choose an extension method for key protection, such as 
  // ProtectKeysWithCertificate, ProtectKeysWithAzureKeyVault
  // Explicitly set an application name to prevent issues with
  // key isolation. 

Data Protection Keys and IdentityServer’s Signing Keys

ASP.NET’s data protection keys are sometimes confused with IdentityServer’s signing keys, but the two are completely separate keys with different purposes. IdentityServer implementations need both to function correctly.

Data Protection Keys

Data protection is a cryptographic library that is part of the ASP.NET framework. Data protection uses private key cryptography to encrypt and sign sensitive data to ensure that it is only written and read by the application. The framework uses data protection to secure data that is commonly used by IdentityServer implementations, such as authentication cookies and anti-forgery tokens. In addition, IdentityServer itself uses data protection to protect sensitive data at rest, such as persisted grants, as well as sensitive data passed through the browser, such as the context objects passed to pages in the UI. The data protection keys are critical secrets for an IdentityServer implementation because they encrypt a great deal of sensitive data at rest and prevent sensitive data that is round-tripped through the browser from being tampered with.

IdentityServer Signing Key

Separately, IdentityServer needs cryptographic keys, called signing keys, to sign tokens such as JWT access tokens and id tokens. The signing keys use public key cryptography to allow client applications and APIs to validate token signatures using the public keys, which are published by IdentityServer through discovery. The private key component of the signing keys are also critical secrets for IdentityServer because a valid signature provides integrity and non-repudiation guarantees that allow client applications and APIs to trust those tokens.

Common Problems

Common data protection problems occur when data is protected with a key that is not available when the data is later read. A common symptom is CryptographicExceptions in the IdentityServer logs. For example, when automatic key management fails to read its signing keys due to a data protection failure, IdentityServer will log an error message such as “Error unprotecting key with kid {Signing Key ID}.”, and log the underlying System.Security.Cryptography.CryptographicException, with a message like “The key {Data Protection Key ID} was not found in the key ring.”

Failures to read automatic signing keys are often the first place where a data protection problem manifests, but any of many places where IdentityServer and ASP.NET use data protection might also throw CryptographicExceptions.

There are several ways that data protection problems can occur:

  1. In load balanced environments, every instance of IdentityServer needs to be configured to share data protection keys. Without shared data protection keys, each load balanced instance will only be able to read the data that it writes.
  2. Data protected data could be generated in a development environment and then accidentally included into the build output. This is most commonly the case for automatically managed signing keys that are stored on disk. If you are using automatic signing key management with the default file system based key store, you should exclude the ~/keys directory from source control and make sure keys are not included in your builds. Note that if you are using our Entity Framework based implementation of the operational data stores, then the keys will instead be stored in the database.
  3. Data protection creates keys isolated by application name. If you don’t specify a name, the content root path of the application will be used. But, beginning in .NET 6.0 Microsoft changed how they handle the path, which can cause data protection keys to break. Their docs on the problem are here, including a work-around where you de-normalize the path. Then, in .NET 7.0, this change was reverted. The solution is always to specify an explicit application name, and if you have old keys that were generated without an explicit application name, you need to set your application name to match the default behavior that produced the keys you want to be able to read.
  4. If your IdentityServer is hosted by IIS, special configuration is needed for data protection. In most default deployments, IIS lacks the permissions required to persist data protection keys, and falls back to using an ephemeral key generated every time the site starts up. Microsoft’s docs on this issue are here.

Identity Server’s Usage of Data Protection

Duende IdentityServer’s features that rely on data protection include