Securing a Stateless Django Application

Django is a mature web framework for Python. Among it’s many uses is creating REST APIs (or a standalong backend for that matter). Django provides an authentication and authorization mechanism out of the box, but if you wish to make your REST API or the backend stateless, you need to roll your own.

Stateless Authentication Mechanism

A good stateless authentication mechanism is JSON Web Tokens also known as JWT. Let’s look at JWT in a bit more detail.


JWT is basically a signed piece of text that can contain any information we want.

We uses a secret key to sign the text token and pass it on to the authenticated user. The user will pass over the signed token to authenticate the requests.

The server will verify the token passed over by the user using the secret key.

A more detailed introduction can be found in the JWT web site.

Installing a Python JWT Library

Multiple JWT libraries has popped up for various languages, so integrating this with any web framework should be pretty straightforward.

A list of libraries and their full capabilities have been compiled by the nice folks at and can be found here.

We will be using the [python-jose] library to secure our Django application, it has all the nice ticks ticked!

Add python-jose to your requirements.txt file or just install it directly by pip install python-jose.

Creating our token

We need to decide what we will put in our JWT. While we can put anything in our token, it’s not advisable to do so. We don’t want to increase the size of our token unnecessarily.


Whatever we are embedding inside the JWT is called a Claim. A claim is an statement about the subject(user).

What that means practically is that any attribute we place inside the JWT is a claim.

Token Content

So what will be include in our token? There are a few recommended claims that we should include like the exp claim.

The exp (expiration time) claim identifies the expiration time on or after which the JWT will be invalid. The value should be a NumericDate value. That basically means Seconds Since the Epoch

Let’s see what out basic token looks like.

{'user_id': user_id, 'exp': datetime.utcnow() + timedelta(days=5)}

We have the user_id, identifying the user this token is representing, and we have the token expiry.

Using python-jose

There are only two things that you need from the a JWT library. First is encoding the token. Second is decoding and verifying the token.

python-jose provides these functionality, along with a lot of other functionalities, you can read the documentation from here to get familiar with all the other features of the library.

Using the library is pretty simple, we can easily sign our token using the encode method, and verify it using the decode method.

You need two parameters to use these methods, the first is the secret, this is what the signing algorithm will use. Unless you have a very specific requirement,this is generally one per application.

Second parameter we need is the algorithm that will be used to sign our token, we will use the HS512 algorithm to sign our token.

HS512 is HMAC using SHA-2, basically it’s a message signing mechanism. It will generate a hash of our message(or JWT in this case) and any tampering of the Token will yield a different hash. So when we check the hash against the altered message we will know that the message has been tampered with and is no longer valid, because the hashes are different.

It’s not possible to generate the proper hash for the tampered message without the secret key, we used to originally sign it.

So the encoding method would look like

jwt.encode(payload_to_be_signed, "myapplicationwidesecret", "HS512")

and the decoding method would look like

jwt.decode(jwt_token, "myapplicationwidesecret", "HS512")

If the JWT is invalid the decode method would throw an JWTError.

Writing our JWT Service.

Now that we know how to encode/sign a JWT and decode it, let’s write our own JWT service.

import uuid
from datetime import datetime, timedelta

from django.conf import settings
from jose import jwt
from jose.constants import ALGORITHMS

class JWTService:
    JWT_SECRET = settings.JWT["JWT_SECRET"]

    def create_token(user_id):
        payload = {''user_id': user_id,  'exp': datetime.utcnow() + timedelta(days=JWTService.JWT_EXP_DELTA_DAYS)}

        token = jwt.encode(payload, JWTService.JWT_SECRET, ALGORITHMS.HS512)

        return token

    def verify_token(jwt_token):
        jwt_payload = jwt.decode(jwt_token, JWTService.JWT_SECRET, ALGORITHMS.HS512)

        return jwt_payload

We have externalizes all the configurations. The secret and the token expiry in days has been moved to the Django settings. We have also used the python-jose constants to set the algorithm to HS512.

There are two methods in our JWTService class. The create_token method accepts a user_id parameter and creates a JWT token for that given user ID. We will then return the JWT to the user who successfully authenticated themselves.

The verify_token method accepts a jwt_token parameter, and decodes the JWT. If the JWT is invalid it throws a JWTError and the calling method needs to handle it like this.

        decoded_payload = jwt_service.verify_token(jwt_token)
    except JWTError as e:
        // Invalid JWT, throw another error, or return a 401 HTTP Response

Invalidating JWT

We will have to invalidate the JWTs, individually (when user signs off from a device) or the whole lot at once (when your security has been breached).

Now invalidating the whole lot of JWTs is pretty easy, all we have to do is change the secret key used to encode/decode JWTs and all old JWTs become invalid.

It’s less straightforward to invalidate individual JWTs. There are many ways to do this, but I’ve found the simplest way is to keep a current token version in the user table (or anywhere you store user data).

This version will be incremented everytime we invalidate a token, the new incremented version will then be persisted to the user table.

The current version of the token will be embedded withing the JWT, and upon verification, we will check the token version in the JWT with the current user token in our user table. If they don’t match we will reject the JWT and designate it invalid.

So our final JWTService class will look like this.

import uuid
from datetime import datetime, timedelta

from django.conf import settings
from jose import jwt, JWTError
from jose.constants import ALGORITHMS

from user_service import UserService

class JWTService:
    JWT_SECRET = settings.JWT["JWT_SECRET"]

    def create_token(user_id, phone_number, email, current_token_version):
        payload = {'user_id': user_id, 'version': current_token_version,
                   'exp': datetime.utcnow() + timedelta(days=JWTService.JWT_EXP_DELTA_DAYS)}

        token = jwt.encode(payload, JWTService.JWT_SECRET, ALGORITHMS.HS512)

        return token

    def verify_token(jwt_token):
        jwt_payload = jwt.decode(jwt_token, JWTService.JWT_SECRET, ALGORITHMS.HS512)

        # The get_user_by_id method returns the user information by user_id, we then retrieves the token_version of
        # that user and compare it with the token version of the JWT.
        user_token_version = UserService.get_user_by_id(jwt_payload["user_id"]).token_version
        if user_token_version != jwt_payload["version"]:
            raise JWTError("Invalidated JWT token")

        return jwt_payload

The create_token method now accepts a current_token_version as a parameter, this is the current version of the user. You can optionally increment this upon successful authentication, if the user should only be logged into a single device at a time.

The user data retrieval is encapsulated inside the UserService and should be self explanatory.

Creating a decorator

Everything is good so far, but this code isn’t very usable in a web application where you have public view and private views that only authenticated users can access.

Do you really want to pepper the code to, retrieve the JWT from a HTTP request and validate it, all over your controllers? I don’t!

Luckily we can write a python decorator to handle this tedious crosscutting concern. Now python decorators are out of the scope of this article, but you can get a good grasp of them from here.

We want the decorator to do two things, one is to validate the JWT passed over in a Django request. The other is to provide the authenticated user details to the calling method in an easily accessible way.

Let’s see what our decorator look like.

import inspect
from functools import wraps

from django.http import *

from jwt_service import *


jwt_service = JWTService()

def need_jwt_verification(decorated_function, injectables=[]):
    def decorator(*args, **kwargs):
        request = args[0]

        # Make sure that this decorator isn't used anywhere else by mistake.
        if not isinstance(request, HttpRequest):
            raise RuntimeError(
                "This decorator can only work with django view methods accepting a HTTPRequest as the first parameter")

        # Missing header means authentication failed.
        if AUTHORIZATION_HEADER_NAME not in request.META:
            return HttpResponse("Missing authentication header", status=401)

        # Get the header content and strip out the "Bearer" characters.
        jwt_token = request.META[AUTHORIZATION_HEADER_NAME].replace(BEARER_METHOD_TEXT, "")

            decoded_payload = jwt_service.verify_token(jwt_token)
            user_id = decoded_payload["user_id"]

            # Check if the method this decorator is used on has parameters that should be populated wit the user_id
            parameter_names = inspect.getargspec(decorated_function).args

            if "user_id" in parameter_names:
                kwargs["user_id"] = user_id

            # Populate data for methods using to get user_id value.
            user = type('', (), {})()
   = user_id
            request.__setattr__("user", user)

            return decorated_function(*args, **kwargs)
        except JWTError as e:
            return HttpResponse("Incorrect or expired authentication header", status=401)

    return decorator

You can use this decoator on the view functions you want to protect.

In a class based view, you can use it via the method_decorator decorator (a bit strange, I know!).

import logging

from django.http import JsonResponse
from django.utils.decorators import method_decorator
from django.views.generic import View

from security_decorators import need_jwt_verification

logger = logging.getLogger(__name__)

@method_decorator([need_jwt_verification], name="dispatch")
class HelloController(View):
    def get(self, request, user_id):
        return JsonResponse('{"message":"Hello user with ID %s"}' % str(user_id), safe=False)

In a normal view function you can use it directly

from django.http import *
from django.views.decorators.http import require_GET

from security_decorators import need_jwt_verification

def get_event_users(request):
    return JsonResponse('{"message":"Hello user with ID %s"}' % str(, safe=False)

Note that anywhere we use the user_id method parameter we can use the request attribute and vice versa because we populate both in our decorator.

Authorization Header & Bearer Token

This decorator expect the JWT to passed on as a Bearer token.

Basically this means you need to use the Authorization header to pass the word Bearer and then the JWT.

Authorization : Bearer our.jwt.token

The Django key for getting the Authorization HTTP header is HTTP_AUTHORIZATION.

JWT Content Access

The decorator should be pretty explanatory with all the comments in there, one thing worth repeating is the parameter population, this decorator will automatically populated view parameters named user_id on the views it is applied on.

And any view that doesn’t want to declare method parameters can access the user_id via the request attributes

This is a very convenient way for the views to access any claims we emdbed in our JWT.


I used Python 2.7.9, Django 1.11 and python-jose 1.3.2. However I don’t imagine things being much different in Python 3+ and newer versions of the libraries, so this code should still work as intended.

Written on March 10, 2018