Session management for web applications

A web session is a sequence of network HTTP request and response transactions associated with the same user. Modern and complex web applications require the retaining of information or status about each user for the duration of multiple requests. Therefore, sessions provide the ability to establish variables – such as access rights and localization settings – which will apply to each and every interaction a user has with the web application for the duration of the session.

Session management for web applications

Web applications can create sessions to keep track of anonymous users after the very first user request. An example would be maintaining the user language preference. Additionally, web applications will make use of sessions once the user has authenticated. This ensures the ability to identify the user on any subsequent requests as well as being able to apply security access controls, authorized access to the user private data, and to increase the usability of the application. Therefore, current web applications can provide session capabilities both pre and post authentication.

Once an authenticated session has been established, the session ID (or token) is temporarily equivalent to the strongest authentication method used by the application, such as username and password, passphrases, one-time passwords (OTP), client-based digital certificates, smartcards, or biometrics (such as fingerprint or eye retina).

HTTP is a stateless protocol (RFC2616 section 5), where each request and response pair is independent of other web interactions. Therefore, in order to introduce the concept of a session, it is required to implement session management capabilities that link both the authentication and access control (or authorization) modules commonly available in web applications.


The session ID or token binds the user authentication credentials (in the form of a user session) to the user HTTP traffic and, the appropriate access controls enforced by the web application. The complexity of these three components (authentication, session management, and access control) in modern web applications, plus the fact that its implementation and binding resides on the web developer's hands (as web development frameworks do not provide strict relationships between these modules), makes the implementation of a secure session management module very challenging.

Session management implementation

The session management implementation defines the exchange mechanism that will be used between the user and, the web application to share and continuously exchange the session ID. There are multiple mechanisms available in HTTP to maintain session state within web applications, such as cookies (standard HTTP header), URL parameters (URL rewriting – RFC2396), URL arguments on GET requests, body arguments on POST requests, such as hidden form fields (HTML forms), or proprietary HTTP headers.

The preferred session ID exchange mechanism should allow defining advanced token properties, such as the token expiration date and time, or granular usage constraints. This is one of the reasons why cookies (RFCs 2109 & 2965 & 6265) are one of the most extensively used session ID exchange mechanisms, offering advanced capabilities not available in other methods.

The usage of specific session ID exchange mechanisms, such as those where the ID is included in the URL, might disclose the session ID (in web links and logs, web browser history and bookmarks, the Referer header or search engines), as well as facilitate other attacks, such as the manipulation of the ID or session fixation attacks.


Session management mechanisms based on cookies can make use of two types of cookies, non-persistent (or session) cookies, and persistent cookies. If a cookie presents the Max-Age (that has preference over Expires) or Expires attributes, it will be considered a persistent cookie and will be stored on disk by the web browser based until the expiration time.

The session ID exchange mechanism based on cookies provides multiple security features in the form of cookie attributes that can be used to protect the exchange of the session ID, Secure, HttpOnly, Expires, maxAge attributes, etc.

Secure attribute

The Secure cookie attribute instructs web browsers to only send the cookie through an encrypted HTTPS (SSL/TLS) connection. This session protection mechanism is mandatory to prevent the disclosure of the session ID through MitM (Man-in-the-Middle) attacks. It ensures that an attacker cannot simply capture the session ID from web browser traffic.

Forcing the web application to only use HTTPS for its communication (even when port TCP/80, HTTP, is closed in the web application host) does not protect against session ID disclosure if the Secure cookie has not been set - the web browser can be deceived to disclose the session ID over an unencrypted HTTP connection. The attacker can intercept and manipulate the victim user traffic and inject an HTTP unencrypted reference to the web application that will force the web browser to submit the session ID in the clear.

HttpOnly attribute

The HttpOnly cookie attribute instructs web browsers not to allow scripts (e.g. JavaScript or VBscript) an ability to access the cookies via the DOM document.cookie object. This session ID protection is mandatory to prevent session ID stealing through XSS attacks. However, if an XSS attack is combined with a CSRF attack, the requests sent to the web application will include the session cookie, as the browser always includes the cookies when sending requests. The HttpOnly cookie only protects the confidentiality of the cookie; the attacker cannot use it offline, outside of the context of an XSS attack.

SameSite attribute

SameSite allows a server define a cookie attribute making it impossible to the browser send this cookie along with cross-site requests. The main goal is to mitigate the risk of cross-origin information leakage, and provides some protection against cross-site request forgery attacks.

Expire and maxAge attributes

Session management mechanisms based on cookies can make use of two types of cookies, non-persistent (or session) cookies, and persistent cookies. If a cookie presents the Max-Age (that has preference over Expires) or Expires attributes, it will be considered a persistent cookie and will be stored on disk by the web browser based until the expiration time.

Typically, session management capabilities to track users after authentication make use of non-persistent cookies. This forces the session to disappear from the client if the current web browser instance is closed. Therefore, it is highly recommended to use non-persistent cookies for session management purposes, so that the session ID does not remain on the web client cache for long periods of time, from where an attacker can obtain it.

  • Ensure that sensitive information is not comprised, by ensuring that sensitive information is not persistent / encrypting / stored on a need basis for the duration of the need.
  • Ensure that unauthorized activities cannot take place via cookie manipulation.
  • Ensure secure flag is set to prevent accidental transmission over "the wire" in a non-secure manner.
  • Determine if all state transitions in the application code properly check for the cookies and enforce their use
  • Ensure entire cookie should be encrypted if sensitive data is persisted in the cookie
  • Define all cookies being used by the application, their name and why they are needed

Session id lifecycle

There are two types of session management mechanisms for web applications, permissive and strict, related to session fixation vulnerabilities. The permissive mechanism allows the web application to initially accept any session ID value set by the user as valid, creating a new session for it, while the strict mechanism enforces that the web application will only accept session ID values that have been previously generated by the web application.

The session tokens should be handled by the web server if possible or generated via a cryptographically secure random number generator.

Although the most common mechanism in use today is the strict one (more secure), PHP defaults to permissive. Developers must ensure that the web application does not use a permissive mechanism under certain circumstances. Web applications should never accept a session ID they have never generated, and in case of receiving one, they should generate and offer the user a new valid session ID. Additionally, this scenario should be detected as a suspicious activity and, an alert should be generated.

Manage Session ID as Any Other User Input

Session IDs must be considered untrusted, as any other user input processed by the web application, and they must be thoroughly validated and verified. Depending on the session management mechanism used, the session ID will be received in a GET or POST parameter, in the URL or in an HTTP header (e.g. cookies). If web applications do not validate and filter out invalid session ID values before processing them, they can potentially be used to exploit other web vulnerabilities, such as SQL injection if the session IDs are stored on a relational database, or persistent XSS if the session IDs are stored and reflected back afterwards by the web application.

Renew the Session ID After Any Privilege Level Change

The session ID must be renewed or regenerated by the web application after any privilege level change within the associated user session. The most common scenario where the session ID regeneration is mandatory is during the authentication process, as the privilege level of the user changes from the unauthenticated (or anonymous) state to the authenticated state. Other common scenarios must also be considered, such as password changes, permission changes or switching from a regular user role to an administrator role within the web application. For all these web application critical pages, previous session IDs have to be ignored, a new session ID must be assigned to every new request received for the critical resource, and the old or previous session ID must be destroyed.

The session ID regeneration is mandatory to prevent session fixation attacks, where an attacker sets the session ID on the victim user's web browser instead of gathering the victim's session ID, as in most of the other session-based attacks, and independently of using HTTP or HTTPS. This protection mitigates the impact of other web-based vulnerabilities that can also be used to launch session fixation attacks, such as HTTP response splitting or XSS (see here and here).

A complementary recommendation is to use a different session ID or token name (or set of session IDs) pre and post authentication, so that the web application can keep track of anonymous users and authenticated users without the risk of exposing or binding the user session between both states.

Session expiration

In order to minimize the time period an attacker can launch attacks over active sessions and hijack them, it is mandatory to set expiration timeouts for every session, establishing the amount of time a session will remain active. Insufficient session expiration by the web application increases the exposure of other session-based attacks, as for the attacker to be able to reuse a valid session ID and hijack the associated session, it must still be active.

The shorter the session interval is, the lesser the time an attacker has to use the valid session ID. The session expiration timeout values must be set accordingly with the purpose and nature of the web application, and balance security and usability, so that the user can comfortably complete the operations within the web application without his session frequently expiring.

Both the idle and absolute timeout values are highly dependent on how critical the web application and its data are. Common idle timeouts ranges are 2-5 minutes for high-value applications and 15-30 minutes for low risk applications. Absolute timeouts depend on how long a user usually uses the application. If the application is intended to be used by an office worker for a full day, an appropriate absolute timeout range could be between 4 and 8 hours.

When a session expires, the web application must take active actions to invalidate the session on both sides, client and server. The latter is the most relevant and mandatory from a security perspective.

For most session exchange mechanisms, client side actions to invalidate the session ID are based on clearing out the token value. For example, to invalidate a cookie it is recommended to provide an empty (or invalid) value for the session ID, and set the Expires (or Max-Age) attribute to a date from the past (in case a persistent cookie is being used): Set-Cookie: id=; Expires=Friday, 17-May-03 18:45:00 GMT.

In order to close and invalidate the session on the server side, it is mandatory for the web application to take active actions when the session expires, or the user actively logs out.

Automatic Session Expiration

Idle timeout

All sessions should implement an idle or inactivity timeout. This timeout defines the amount of time a session will remain active in case there is no activity in the session, closing and invalidating the session upon the defined idle period since the last HTTP request received by the web application for a given session ID.

The idle timeout limits the chances an attacker has to guess and use a valid session ID from another user. However, if the attacker is able to hijack a given session, the idle timeout does not limit the attacker's actions, as he can generate activity on the session periodically to keep the session active for longer periods of time.

Session timeout management and expiration must be enforced server-side. If the client is used to enforce the session timeout, for example using the session token or other client parameters to track time references (e.g. number of minutes since login time), an attacker could manipulate these to extend the session duration.

Absolute timeout

All sessions should implement an absolute timeout, regardless of session activity. This timeout defines the maximum amount of time a session can be active, closing and invalidating the session upon the defined absolute period since the given session was initially created by the web application. After invalidating the session, the user is forced to (re)authenticate again in the web application and establish a new session.

The absolute session limits the amount of time an attacker can use a hijacked session and impersonate the victim user.

Renewal timeout

Alternatively, the web application can implement an additional renewal timeout after which the session ID is automatically renewed, in the middle of the user session, and independently of the session activity and, therefore, of the idle timeout.

After a specific amount of time since the session was initially created, the web application can regenerate a new ID for the user session and try to set it, or renew it, on the client. The previous session ID value would still be valid for some time, accommodating a safety interval, before the client is aware of the new ID and starts using it. At that time, when the client switches to the new ID inside the current session, the application invalidates the previous ID.

This scenario minimizes the amount of time a given session ID value, potentially obtained by an attacker, can be reused to hijack the user session, even when the victim user session is still active. The user session remains alive and open on the legitimate client, although its associated session ID value is transparently renewed periodically during the session duration, every time the renewal timeout expires. Therefore, the renewal timeout complements the idle and absolute timeouts, specially when the absolute timeout value extends significantly over time (e.g. it is an application requirement to keep the user sessions open for long periods of time).

Depending on the implementation, potentially there could be a race condition where the attacker with a still valid previous session ID sends a request before the victim user, right after the renewal timeout has just expired, and obtains first the value for the renewed session ID. At least in this scenario, the victim user might be aware of the attack as her session will be suddenly terminated because her associated session ID is not valid anymore.

Manual Session Expiration

Web applications should provide mechanisms that allow security aware users to actively close their session once they have finished using the web application.

Logout button

Web applications must provide a visible and easily accessible logout (logoff, exit, or close session) button that is available on the web application header or menu and reachable from every web application resource and page, so that the user can manually close the session at any time.

Web content caching

Even after the session has been closed, it might be possible to access the private or sensitive data exchanged within the session through the web browser cache. Therefore, web applications must use restrictive cache directives for all the web traffic exchanged through HTTP and HTTPS, such as the Cache-Control and Pragma HTTP headers, and/or equivalent META tags on all or (at least) sensitive web pages.

Independently of the cache policy defined by the web application, if caching web application contents is allowed, the session IDs must never be cached, so it is highly recommended using the Cache-Control: no-cache="Set-Cookie, Set-Cookie2" directive, to allow web clients to cache everything except the session ID (see here).

Additional Client-Side Defenses for Session Management

Web applications can complement the previously described session management defenses with additional countermeasures on the client side. Client-side protections, typically in the form of JavaScript checks and verifications, are not bullet-proof and can easily be defeated by a skilled attacker, but can introduce another layer of defense that has to be bypassed by intruders.

Initial login timeout

Web applications can use JavaScript code in the login page to evaluate and measure the amount of time since the page was loaded and, a session ID was granted. If a login attempt is tried after a specific amount of time, the client code can notify the user that the maximum amount of time to log in has passed and reload the login page, hence retrieving a new session ID.

This extra protection mechanism tries to force the renewal of the session ID pre-authentication, avoiding scenarios where a previously used (or manually set) session ID is reused by the next victim using the same computer, for example, in session fixation attacks.

Force Session Logout On Web Browser Window Close Events

Web applications can use JavaScript code to capture all the web browser tab or window close (or even back) events and take the appropriate actions to close the current session before closing the web browser, emulating that the user has manually closed the session via the logout button.

Disable Web Browser Cross-Tab Sessions

Web applications can use JavaScript code once the user has logged in and a session has been established to force the user to re-authenticate if a new web browser tab or window is opened against the same web application. The web application does not want to allow multiple web browser tabs or windows to share the same session. Therefore, the application tries to force the web browser to not share the same session ID simultaneously between them.

NOTE: This mechanism cannot be implemented if the session ID is exchanged through cookies, as cookies are shared by all web browser tabs/windows.

Automatic client logout

JavaScript code can be used by the web application in all (or critical) pages to automatically logout client sessions after the idle timeout expires, for example, by redirecting the user to the logout page (the same resource used by the logout button mentioned previously).

The benefit of enhancing the server-side idle timeout functionality with client-side code is that the user can see that the session has finished due to inactivity, or even can be notified in advance that the session is about to expire through a count down timer and warning messages. This user-friendly approach helps to avoid loss of work in web pages that require extensive input data due to server-side silently expired sessions.

Published: 2021-04-26
Author: Henrik Grönvall
Henrik Grönvall
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