Table of Contents
HTTP is a stateless protocol, meaning web servers respond to client requests without linking them to each other. Applying a state mechanism scheme allows a user's multiple requests to be associated with each other across a "session." Being able to separate and recognize users' actions to specific sessions is critical to web security. While a preferred cookie mechanism (RFC 2965) exists to build session management systems, it is up to a web designer / developer to implement a secure session management scheme. Poorly designed or implemented schemes can lead to compromised user accounts, which in too many cases may also have administrative privileges.
For most state mechanism schemes, a session token is transmitted between HTTP server and client. Session tokens are often stored in cookies, but also in static URLs, dynamically rewritten URLs, hidden in the HTML of a web page, or some combination of these methods.
Love 'em or loath them, cookies are now a requisite for use of many online banking and e-commerce sites. Cookies were never designed to store usernames and passwords or any sensitive information. Being attenuated to this design decision is helpful in understanding how to use them correctly. Cookies were originally introduced by Netscape and are now specified in RFC 2965 (which supersedes RFC 2109), with RFC 2964 and BCP44 offering guidance on best practice. There are two categories of cookies, secure or non-secure and persistent or non-persistent, giving four individual cookies types.
Persistent and Secure
Persistent and Non-Secure
Non-Persistenet and Secure
Non-Persistent and Non-Secure
Persistent cookies are stored in a text file (cookies.txt under Netscape and multiple *.txt files for Internet Explorer) on the client and are valid for as long as the expiry date is set for (see below). Non-Persistent cookies are stored in RAM on the client and are destroyed when the browser is closed or the cookie is explicitly killed by a log-off script.
Secure cookies can only be sent over HTTPS (SSL). Non-Secure cookies can be sent over HTTPS or regular HTTP. The title of secure is somewhat misleading. It only provides transport security. Any data sent to the client should be considered under the total control of the end user, regardless of the transport mechanism in use.
A typical cookie used to store a session token (for redhat.com for example) looks much like:
Table 7.1. Structure Of A Cookie
The columns above illustrate the six parameters that can be stored in a cookie.
From left-to-right, here is what each field represents:
domain: The website domain that created and that can read the variable.
flag: A TRUE/FALSE value indicating whether all machines within a given domain can access the variable.
path: The path attribute supplies a URL range for which the cookie is valid. If path is set to /reference, the cookie will be sent for URLs in /reference as well as sub-directories such as/reference/webprotocols. A pathname of " / " indicates that the cookie will be used for all URLs at the site from which the cookie originated.
secure: A TRUE/FALSE value indicating if an SSL connection with the domain is needed to access the variable.
expiration: The Unix time that the variable will expire on. Unix time is defined as the number of seconds since 00:00:00 GMT on Jan 1, 1970. Omitting the expiration date signals to the browser to store the cookie only in memory; it will be erased when the browser is closed.
name: The name of the variable (in this case Apache).
So the above cookie value of Apache equals 126.96.36.199.16018996349247480 and is set to expire on July 27, 2006, for the website domain at http://www.redhat.com.
The website sets the cookie in the user's browser in plaintext in the HTTP stream like this:
Set-Cookie: Apache="188.8.131.52.16018996349247480"; path="/"; domain="www.redhat.com"; path_spec; expires="2006-07-27 19:39:15Z"; version=0
The limit on the size of each cookie (name and value combined) is 4 kb.
A maximum of 20 cookies per server or domain is allowed.