Authentication Cheat Sheet
Last revision (mm/dd/yy): 01/13/2016
Authentication is the process of verification that an individual, entity or website is who it claims to be. Authentication in the context of web applications is commonly performed by submitting a user name or ID and one or more items of private information that only a given user should know.
Session Management is a process by which a server maintains the state of an entity interacting with it. This is required for a server to remember how to react to subsequent requests throughout a transaction. Sessions are maintained on the server by a session identifier which can be passed back and forward between the client and server when transmitting and receiving requests. Sessions should be unique per user and computationally very difficult to predict.
Authentication General Guidelines
Make sure your usernames/userids are case insensitive. User 'smith' and user 'Smith' should be the same user. User names should also be unique.
Email address as a User ID
Many sites use email addresses as a user id, which is a good mechanism for ensuring a unique identifier for each user without adding the burden of remembering a new username. However, many web applications do not treat email addresses correctly due to common misconceptions about what constitutes a valid address.
Specifically, it is completely valid to have an mailbox address which:
The local-part is the part of the mailbox address to the left of the rightmost @ character. The domain is the part of the mailbox address to the right of the rightmost @ character and consists of zero or more labels joined by a period character.
At the time of writing, RFC 5321 is the current standard defining SMTP and what constitutes a valid mailbox address.
Please note, email addresses should be consider to be public data. For high security applications usernames could be assigned and secret instead of user-defined public data.
Many web applications contain computationally expensive and inaccurate regular expressions that attempt to validate email addresses.
Recent changes to the landscape mean that the number of false-negatives will increase, particularly due to:
Following RFC 5321, best practice for validating an email address would be to:
To ensure an address is deliverable, the only way to check this is to send the user an email and have the user take action to confirm receipt. Beyond confirming that the email address is valid and deliverable, this also provides a positive acknowledgement that the user has access to the mailbox and is likely to be authorised to use it. This does not mean that other users cannot access this mailbox, for example when the user makes use of a service that generates a throw away email address.
As the local-part of email addresses are, in fact - case sensitive, it is important to store and compare email addresses correctly. To normalise an email address input, you would convert the domain part ONLY to lowercase.
Unfortunately this does and will make input harder to normalise and correctly match to a users intent.
It is reasonable to only accept one unique capitalisation of an otherwise identical address, however in this case it is critical to:
Implement Proper Password Strength Controls
A key concern when using passwords for authentication is password strength. A "strong" password policy makes it difficult or even improbable for one to guess the password through either manual or automated means. The following characteristics define a strong password:
The following advice is disputed. Please view the OWASP presentation, "Your Password Complexity Requirements are Worthless - OWASP AppSecUSA 2014" for more information.
Longer passwords provide a greater combination of characters and consequently make it more difficult for an attacker to guess.
While minimum length enforcement may cause problems with memorizing passwords among some users, applications should encourage them to set passphrases (sentences or combination of words) that can be much longer than typical passwords and yet much easier to remember.
Applications should enforce password complexity rules to discourage easy to guess passwords. Password mechanisms should allow virtually any character the user can type to be part of their password, including the space character. Passwords should, obviously, be case sensitive in order to increase their complexity. Occasionally, we find systems where passwords aren't case sensitive, frequently due to legacy system issues like old mainframes that didn't have case sensitive passwords.
The password change mechanism should require a minimum level of complexity that makes sense for the application and its user population. For example:
Password rotation should be required for privileged accounts within applications at a frequency of every 90 days
Online Password Guessing and Password Attacks
Applications must defend against online password guessing attempts by one of the following methods:
Password Reset Functions
As application's require more complex password policies, they need to be very clear about what these policies are.
Regardless of how the UI behaves, when a user submits their password change request:
Implement Secure Password Recovery Mechanism
It is common for an application to have a mechanism that provides a means for a user to gain access to their account in the event they forget their password. Please see Forgot Password Cheat Sheet for details on this feature.
Store Passwords in a Secure Fashion
It is critical for a application to store a password using the right cryptographic technique. Please see Password Storage Cheat Sheet for details on this feature.
Transmit Passwords Only Over TLS or Other Strong Transport
The login page and all subsequent authenticated pages must be exclusively accessed over TLS or other strong transport. The initial login page, referred to as the "login landing page", must be served over TLS or other strong transport. Failure to utilize TLS or other strong transport for the login landing page allows an attacker to modify the login form action, causing the user's credentials to be posted to an arbitrary location. Failure to utilize TLS or other strong transport for authenticated pages after the login enables an attacker to view the unencrypted session ID and compromise the user's authenticated session.
Require Re-authentication for Sensitive Features
In order to mitigate CSRF and session hijacking, it's important to require the current credentials for an account before updating sensitive account information such as the user's password, user's email, or before sensitive transactions, such as shipping a purchase to a new address. Without this countermeasure, an attacker may be able to execute sensitive transactions through a CSRF or XSS attack without needing to know the user's current credentials. Additionally, an attacker may get temporary physical access to a user's browser or steal their session ID to take over the user's session.
Utilize Multi-Factor Authentication
Multi-factor authentication (MFA) is using more than one authentication factor to logon or process a transaction:
Authentication schemes such as One Time Passwords (OTP) implemented using a hardware token can also be key in fighting attacks such as CSRF and client-side malware. A number of hardware tokens suitable for MFA are available in the market that allow good integration with web applications. See: .
For transactions that process "high risk" data (like credit cards, health information, personally identifiable data) use multifactor authentication
If you are using only client-side authentication, ensure it can not be bypassed, manipulated or misused.
TLS Client Authentication
TLS Client Authentication, also known as two-way TLS authentication, consists of both, browser and server, sending their respective TLS certificates during the TLS handshake process. Just as you can validate the authenticity of a server by using the certificate and asking a well known Certificate Authority (CA) if the certificate is valid, the server can authenticate the user by receiving a certificate from the client and validating against a third party CA or its own CA. To do this, the server must provide the user with a certificate generated specifically for him, assigning values to the subject so that these can be used to determine what user the certificate should validate. The user installs the certificate on a browser and now uses it for the website.
It is a good idea to do this when:
It is generally not a good idea to use this method for widely and publicly available websites that will have an average user. For example, it wouldn't be a good idea to implement this for a website like Facebook. While this technique can prevent the user from having to type a password (thus protecting against an average keylogger from stealing it), it is still considered a good idea to consider using both a password and TLS client authentication combined.
For more information, see: Client-authenticated TLS handshake
Authentication and Error Messages
Incorrectly implemented error messages in the case of authentication functionality can be used for the purposes of user ID and password enumeration. An application should respond (both HTTP and HTML) in a generic manner.
An application should respond with a generic error message regardless of whether the user ID or password was incorrect. It should also give no indication to the status of an existing account.
Incorrect Response Examples
Correct Response Example
The correct response does not indicate if the user ID or password is the incorrect parameter and hence inferring a valid user ID.
Error Codes and URLs
The application may return a different HTTP Error code depending on the authentication attempt response. It may respond with a 200 for a positive result and a 403 for a negative result. Even though a generic error page is shown to a user, the HTTP response code may differ which can leak information about whether the account is valid or not.
Prevent Brute-Force Attacks
If an attacker is able to guess passwords without the account becoming disabled due to failed authentication attempts, the attacker has an opportunity to continue with a brute force attack until the account is compromised. Automating brute-force/password guessing attacks on web applications is a trivial challenge. Password lockout mechanisms should be employed that lock out an account if more than a preset number of unsuccessful login attempts are made. Password lockout mechanisms have a logical weakness. An attacker that undertakes a large number of authentication attempts on known account names can produce a result that locks out entire blocks of user accounts. Given that the intent of a password lockout system is to protect from brute-force attacks, a sensible strategy is to lockout accounts for a period of time (e.g., 20 minutes). This significantly slows down attackers, while allowing the accounts to reopen automatically for legitimate users.
Also, multi-factor authentication is a very powerful deterrent when trying to prevent brute force attacks since the credentials are a moving target. When multi-factor is implemented and active, account lockout may no longer be necessary.
Logging and Monitoring
Enable logging and monitoring of authentication functions to detect attacks / failures on a real time basis
Use of authentication protocols that require no password
While authentication through a user/password combination and using multi-factor authentication is considered generally secure, there are use cases where it isn't considered the best option or even safe. An example of this are third party applications that desire connecting to the web application, either from a mobile device, another website, desktop or other situations. When this happens, it is NOT considered safe to allow the third party application to store the user/password combo, since then it extends the attack surface into their hands, where it isn't in your control. For this, and other use cases, there are several authentication protocols that can protect you from exposing your users' data to attackers.
Open Authorization (OAuth) is a protocol that allows an application to authenticate against a server as a user, without requiring passwords or any third party server that acts as an identity provider. It uses a token generated by the server, and provides how the authorization flows most occur, so that a client, such as a mobile application, can tell the server what user is using the service.
The recommendation is to use and implement OAuth 1.0a or OAuth 2.0, since the very first version (OAuth1.0) has been found to be vulnerable to session fixation.
OAuth 2.0 relies on HTTPS for security and is currently used and implemented by API's from companies such as Facebook, Google, Twitter and Microsoft. OAuth1.0a is more difficult to use because it requires the use of cryptographic libraries for digital signatures, however does not rely on HTTPS for security and can therefore be more suited for higher risk transactions.
OpenId is an HTTP-based protocol that uses identity providers to validate that a user is who he says he is. It is a very simple protocol which allows a service provider initiated way for single sign-on (SSO). This allows the user to re-use a single identity given to a trusted OpenId identity provider and be the same user in multiple websites, without the need to provide any website the password, except for the OpenId identity provider.
Due to its simplicity and that it provides protection of passwords, OpenId has been well adopted. Some of the well known identity providers for OpenId are Stack Exchange, Google, Facebook and Yahoo!
For non-enterprise environment, OpenId is considered a secure and often better choice, as long as the identity provider is of trust.
Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML) is often considered to compete with OpenId. The most recommended version is 2.0, since it is very feature complete and provides a strong security. Like with OpenId, SAML uses identity providers, but unlike it, it is XML-based and provides more flexibility. SAML is based on browser redirects which send XML data. Unlike SAML, it isn't only initiated by a service provider, but it can also be initiated from the identity provider. This allows the user to navigate through different portals while still being authenticated without having to do anything, making the process transparent.
While OpenId has taken most of the consumer market, SAML is often the choice for enterprise applications. The reason for this is often that there are few OpenId identity providers which are considered of enterprise class (meaning that the way they validate the user identity doesn't have high standards required for enterprise identity). It is more common to see SAML being used inside of intranet websites, sometimes even using a server from the intranet as the identity provider.
In the past few years, applications like SAP ERP and SharePoint (SharePoint by using Active Directory Federation Services 2.0) have decided to use SAML 2.0 authentication as an often preferred method for single sign-on implementations whenever enterprise federation is required for web services and web applications.
See also: SAML Security Cheat Sheet
The Fast Identity Online (FIDO) Alliance has created two protocols to facilitate online authentication : the Universal Authentication Framework (UAF) protocol and the Universal Second Factor (U2F) protocol. While UAF focuses on passwordless authentication, U2F allows the addition of a second factor to existing password-based authentication. Both protocols are based on a public key cryptography challenge-response model.
UAF takes advantage of existing security technologies present on devices for authentication including fingerprint sensors, cameras(face biometrics), microphones(voice biometrics), Trusted Execution Environments(TEEs), Secure Elements(SEs) and others. The protocol is designed to plug-in these device capabilities into a common authentication framework. UAF works with both native applications and web applications.
U2F augments password-based authentication using a hardware token (typically USB) that stores cryptographic authentication keys and uses them for signing. The user can use the same token as a second factor for multiple applications. U2F works with web applications. It provides protection against phishing by using the URL of the website to lookup the stored authentication key.
Session Management General Guidelines
Session management is directly related to authentication. The Session Management General Guidelines previously available on this OWASP Authentication Cheat Sheet have been integrated into the Session Management Cheat Sheet.
Password managers are programs, browser plugins or web services that automate management of large number of different credentials, including memorizing and filling-in, generating random passwords on different sites etc. The web application can help password managers by:
A PDF of this cheatsheet has been created here. https://magic.piktochart.com/output/7003174-authentication-cheat-sheet
Authors and Primary Editors
Eoin Keary eoinkeary[at]owasp.org