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A3 2004 Broken Authentication and Session Management

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This article is for the OWASP Top 10 2004


Authentication and session management includes all aspects of handling user authentication and managing active sessions. Authentication is a critical aspect of this process, but even solid authentication mechanisms can be undermined by flawed credential management functions, including password change, forgot my password, remember my password, account update, and other related functions. Because “walk by” attacks are likely for many web applications, all account management functions should require reauthentication even if the user has a valid session id.

User authentication on the web typically involves the use of a userid and password. Stronger methods of authentication are commercially available such as software and hardware based cryptographic tokens or biometrics, but such mechanisms are cost prohibitive for most web applications. A wide array of account and session management flaws can result in the compromise of user or system administration accounts. Development teams frequently underestimate the complexity of designing an authentication and session management scheme that adequately protects credentials in all aspects of the site. Web applications must establish sessions to keep track of the stream of requests from each user. HTTP does not provide this capability, so web applications must create it themselves. Frequently, the web application environment provides a session capability, but many developers prefer to create their own session tokens. In either case, if the session tokens are not properly protected, an attacker can hijack an active session and assume the identity of a user. Creating a scheme to create strong session tokens and protect them throughout their lifecycle has proven elusive for many developers. Unless all authentication credentials and session identifiers are protected with SSL at all times and protected against disclosure from other flaws, such as cross site scripting, an attacker can hijack a user’s session and assume their identity.

Environments Affected

All known web servers, application servers, and web application environments are susceptible to broken authentication and session management issues.

Examples and References

A3.4 How to Determine If You Are Vulnerable

Both code review and penetration testing can be used to diagnose authentication and session management problems. Carefully review each aspect of your authentication mechanisms to ensure that user’s credentials are protected at all times, while they are at rest (e.g., on disk), and while they are in transit (e.g., during login). Review every available mechanism for changing a user’s credentials to ensure that only an authorized user can change them. Review your session management mechanism to ensure that session identifiers are always protected and are used in such a way as to minimize the likelihood of accidental or hostile exposure.

How to Protect Yourself

Careful and proper use of custom or off the shelf authentication and session management mechanisms should significantly reduce the likelihood of a problem in this area. Defining and documenting your site’s policy with respect to securely managing users credentials is a good first step. Ensuring that your implementation consistently enforces this policy is key to having a secure and robust authentication and session management mechanism. Some critical areas include:

  • Password Strength - passwords should have restrictions that require a minimum size and complexity for the password. Complexity typically requires the use of minimum combinations of alphabetic, numeric, and/or non-alphanumeric characters in a user’s password (e.g., at least one of each). Users should be required to change their password periodically. Users should be prevented from reusing previous passwords.
  • Password Use - Users should be restricted to a defined number of login attempts per unit of time and repeated failed login attempts should be logged. Passwords provided during failed login attempts should not be recorded, as this may expose a user’s password to whoever can gain access to this log. The system should not indicate whether it was the username or password that was wrong if a login attempt fails. Users should be informed of the date/time of their last successful login and the number of failed access attempts to their account since that time.
  • Password Change Controls - A single password change mechanism should be used wherever users are allowed to change a password, regardless of the situation. Users should always be required to provide both their old and new password when changing their password (like all account information). If forgotten passwords are emailed to users, the system should require the user to reauthenticate whenever the user is changing their e-mail address, otherwise an attacker who temporarily has access to their session (e.g., by walking up to their computer while they are logged in) can simply change their e-mail address and request a ‘forgotten’ password be mailed to them.
  • Password Storage - All passwords must be stored in either hashed or encrypted form to protect them from exposure, regardless of where they are stored. Hashed form is preferred since it is not reversible. Encryption should be used when the plaintext password is needed, such as when using the password to login to another system. Passwords should never be hardcoded in any source code. Decryption keys must be strongly protected to ensure that they cannot be grabbed and used to decrypt the password file.
  • Protecting Credentials in Transit - The only effective technique is to encrypt the entire login transaction using something like SSL. Simple transformations of the password such as hashing it on the client prior to transmission provide little protection as the hashed version can simply be intercepted and retransmitted even though the actual plaintext password might not be known.
  • Session ID Protection – Ideally, a user’s entire session should be protected via SSL. If this is done, then the session ID (e.g., session cookie) cannot be grabbed off the network, which is the biggest risk of exposure for a session ID. If SSL is not viable for performance or other reasons then session IDs themselves must be protected in other ways. First, they should never be included in the URL as they can be cached by the browser, sent in the referrer header, or accidentally forwarded to a ‘friend’. Session IDs should be long, complicated, random numbers that cannot be easily guessed. Session IDs can also be changed frequently during a session to reduce how long a session ID is valid. Session IDs must be changed when switching to SSL, authenticating, or other major transitions. Session IDs chosen by a user should never be accepted.
  • Account Lists - Systems should be designed to avoid allowing users to gain access to a list of the account names on the site. If lists of users must be presented, it is recommended that some form of pseudonym (screen name) that maps to the actual account be listed instead. That way, the pseudonym can’t be used during a login attempt or some other hack that goes after a user’s account.
  • Browser Caching – Authentication and session data should never be submitted as part of a GET, POST should always be used instead. Authentication pages should be marked with all varieties of the no cache tag to prevent someone from using the back button in a user’s browser to backup to the login page and resubmit the previously typed in credentials. Many browsers now support the autocomplete=false flag to prevent storing of credentials in autocomplete caches.
  • Trust Relationships – Your site architecture should avoid implicit trust between components whenever possible. Each component should authenticate itself to any other component it is interacting with unless there is a strong reason not to (such as performance or lack of a usable mechanism). If trust relationships are required, strong procedural and architecture mechanisms should be in place to ensure that such trust cannot be abused as the site architecture evolves over time.