Database TopicIntro

Authentication Introduction

Web development has evolved dramatically over the years, and one of the pivotal aspects that have grown with it is authentication. Authentication plays a significant role in the modern web, ensuring that users are who they claim to be.

The Necessity for Authentication in Web Development

Most websites need a way to verify who is making requests. Generally this involves providing some secret only the user could know: often called a password.

This is fine as a one-off, but websites need to keep users logged in. You could ask the user to provide their password on every request. This would be a terrible user experience though.

A challenge arises because HTTP, the protocol that underlies the web, is inherently stateless. This means that each HTTP request knows nothing about previous or future requests. With this limitation, there was a need for a mechanism to maintain continuity and remember users across requests. Enter “cookies”.

An Introduction to Cookies

Invented in 1994, cookies were designed to preserve state between HTTP requests. This could range from keeping track of items in a shopping cart to monitoring user behavior.

Fundamentally, cookies are HTTP headers. When a server sends a response that contains a set-cookie header, browsers are designed to store this information. Consequently, for all future requests to the same domain, the browser will automatically include this stored information in the form of a cookie header.

For instance, consider a server response:

HTTP/1.1 200 Ok
content-type: text/html
set-cookie: test=123


If the user visits another page (sending a request), the browser automatically adds a cookie header:

GET /other-page HTTP/1.1
accept: text/html
cookie: test=123

This allows the server to save info from one request and retrieve it on later requests from the same browser.

Cookies come equipped with attributes that dictate their behaviour:

  1. Expiry: By default, a cookie is termed a “session” cookie and lasts until the user closes the browser. However, its lifespan can be extended using the Max-Age attribute. For example, set-cookie: test=123; Max-Age=60 ensures the cookie persists for 60 seconds.
  2. Security: Given that cookies can carry sensitive information, especially related to authentication, their protection is paramount.
    • The **HttpOnly** attribute prevents JavaScript from accessing the value. This is important to avoid malicious scripts stealing cookie data (XSS attacks):

      set-cookie: test=123; Max-Age=60; HttpOnly	
    • The **Same-Site** option prevents cookies from being sent on requests from other domains. This is important to avoid other sites impersonating your users (CSRF attacks):

      set-cookie: test=123; Max-Age=60; HttpOnly; Same-Site=Lax
    • The **Secure** option stops the cookie being set on un-encrypted connections. This is important to stop hackers intercepting requests and stealing cookies (MITM attacks):

      set-cookie: test=123; Max-Age=60; HttpOnly; Secure; Same-Site=Lax

Authentication methods

So how do we actually track whether a user is logged in?

Stateless Authentication

The simplest way is to put all the info you need into cookies:

set-cookie: user={"id":"1","name":"oliverjam","role":"admin"}

The server can read this JSON string and parse it into an object to find out info about which user is logged in.

This is called “stateless” as no state is stored on the server. Assuming the server can trust the cookie it can trust this user previously logged in.

But can you trust cookies? Cookies are just HTTP headers, so they’re easy to fake:

<> -H 'cookie: user={"id":1,"name":"oliverjam","admin":true}'

You can even edit them using dev tools

Signed cookies

We can use cryptography to create a value that we can verify later.

Cryptography is the practice and study of techniques for secure communication.

A “hash function” takes a value and a secret, and returns a “hash”:

hash("hello", "secret123");
// "iKqz7ejTrflNJquQ07r9SiCDBww7zOnAFO4EpEOEfAs="

Hashing is a one-way process. There’s no way to get the value back.

Hashing the same value with the same secret will always produce the same result:

hash("hello", "secret123");
// "iKqz7ejTrflNJquQ07r9SiCDBww7zOnAFO4EpEOEfAs="

The only way to recreate this value is to know the secret.

We can use this to “sign” our cookies:

set-cookie: hello.iKqz7ejTrflNJquQ07r9SiCDBww7zOnAFO4EpEOEfAs=

When the server receives the cookie it can re-hash the value (“hello”) using the secret only it knows. If the hash matches the one in the cookie the server knows it hasn’t been tampered with.

You won’t have to implement this yourself. It’s safer to rely on battle-tested libraries for security features.

Downsides to stateless auth

Cookies have a 4kb size limit. You’ll often want to store more user info than that.

The server cannot control who is logged in. If a user presents a non-expired cookie they are authenticated.

Session-based authentication

This is the opposite of stateless auth. Store a single “session ID” in the cookie:

set-cookie: sid=abc123

The server reads the cookie, then uses it to look up the saved session data. This would usually be stored in a database.

Session security

Since the session ID is basically a password it must be secure.

Session IDs should be long random strings. This prevents people from guessing them.

They should also still be signed with a hash, so you can trust them.

Web security

It’s important to treat security very seriously. The web has been plagued by serious breaches.

As web developers you have a responsibility to safeguard your users’ private data.

The average user re-uses the same password for most sites. If you half-ass your site’s security and get hacked that has wider repercussions.

Don’t roll your own crypto.

The golden rule of security. If in doubt, look it up. Find out what is popular and recommended by experts.

Building a good secure user-experience takes time and effort. Here are some features we haven’t covered:

  • Email verification
  • Password resets
  • Preventing automated mass account creation
  • Banning abusive accounts

If you don’t have the time or ability to do it properly (e.g. you’re hired for a 2 week freelance project) use a trusted 3rd party service.