Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Simultaneous Sessions for a Single User

It's a common request or recommendation that a web application not allow a user to have more than one session active at a time. In other words, after a user logs into an application, he should not be permitted to open a different type of browser (or use another computer) to log in again until his first session has ended. I've recommended this myself, but it's always been kind of muddy as to why this should be done. It is not trivial to implement this feature in the code. Recently, one of our clients wanted to better understand the reasons behind this recommendation. I was given the task of explaining.

The bottom line is that I could not find one strong, clear-cut reason for disallowing simultaneous sessions for a single user. There are a number of scenarios where it might help. Listed below are the reasons I came up with for implementing this feature. Please let me know if you have other ideas on this subject.

  • An application has a licensing scheme that allows only a limited number of concurrent users or requires users to pay for access or premium content. A technical control to prevent simultaneous sessions for a single user ID would limit the financial harm caused by users sharing login credentials.
  • It is out of the ordinary for a user to be logged in from more than one location (or more than one type of browser) for a given point in time. Anything out of the ordinary should be assumed to be a potential security risk.
  • An attacker somehow steals a user's credentials (perhaps by sniffing unencrypted HTTP traffic) while the user was authenticating to the application. The attacker immediately tries to log in with the stolen credentials. The application sees that the user is already logged in and returns an error to the attacker, thus temporarily protecting the account.
  • An attacker shoulder surfs to obtain a valid username (but not the password). He then immediately proceeds to run a password guessing or dictionary attack hoping to determine the password. If his attack happens to be successful during the time the legitimate user is logged in, it would prevent the attacker from gaining access.
  • An attacker and a victim log in such that their sessions overlap. The application displays an error message that alerts the victim that someone else is using his account. The victim may contact the site owner, spurring an investigation, which might uncover a compromised account.
  • It could help ensure data integrity and non-repudiation. A user may have multiple authenticated sessions at the same time, and one of the sessions might be used to make a critical change. If a user claims he never made such a change, it could be a problem for the logs to show that two authenticated sessions existed and the user claims he was logged in only once.
  • It could help defend against a malicious user who wishes to overload the server memory by creating an excessive number of authenticated sessions. Authenticated sessions typically use much more memory on the server than unauthenticated sessions. With valid credentials and no limit to simultaneous sessions, a user could potentially create a denial-of-service condition.
After my research, I came to the conclusion that disallowing simultaneous sessions often does not increase an application's security posture enough to justify the required development and implementation cost. Obviously there are some special situations, like the licensing issue, where it could make sense.

This feature may actually introduce new problems. Let's say a user logs into an application and his machine crashes or the power goes out. A few minutes later, when trying to log in again, the user is denied access and told he's already logged in. Of course, it's true from the server's perspective (his session is still active), but now there's an angry user shouting profanities at his computer. Unless the user knows his previous session ID (fat chance), there's nothing for him to do but wait until the session expires due to inactivity or call your customer service department and complain.

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Monday, May 18, 2009

The Importance of Case-Sensitive Passwords

It is rare that I encounter a web application that doesn't support case-sensitive user passwords. But it still happens. In my experience this often occurs not because the application developers weren't cognizant of security, but because the authentication is actually processed by an old, backend system that doesn't support case-sensitive passwords. Let's review why implementation of case sensitive passwords is so important.


At first you might think that having case-sensitive passwords would double the number of possible passwords. Of course, that is not how it works. Let's say a user decides he wants a password of "orange7". Without case sensitivity, the number of possible passwords for this user is exactly one. But with a case-sensitive password, the user can choose from sixty-four possible passwords:

orange7 Orange7 oRange7 orAnge7 oraNge7 oranGe7
orangE7 ORange7 OrAnge7 OraNge7 OranGe7 OrangE7
oRAnge7 oRaNge7 oRanGe7 oRangE7 orANge7 orAnGe7
orAngE7 oraNGe7 oraNgE7 oranGE7 ORAnge7 OrANge7
OraNGe7 OranGE7 OrAnGe7 OrAngE7 OraNgE7 ORaNge7
ORanGe7 ORangE7 oRANge7 oRaNGe7 oRanGE7 oRAnGe7
oRAngE7 orANGe7 orAnGE7 orANgE7 oraNGE7 oRaNgE7
orANGE7 oRaNGE7 oRAnGE7 oRANgE7 oRANGe7 OraNGE7
OrAnGE7 OrANgE7 OrANGe7 ORanGE7 ORaNgE7 ORaNGe7
ORAngE7 ORAnGe7 ORANge7 oRANGE7 OrANGE7 ORaNGE7
ORAnGE7 ORANgE7 ORANGe7 ORANGE7


So, having case-sensitive passwords vastly increases the universe of possible passwords and sets the bar significantly higher for hackers running brute force or dictionary attacks on a web application. For example, 64 passwords must be checked versus only one in the scenario presented here.

As an end-user, be sure to take advantage of case sensitivity to strengthen the security of your account. Use a mixture of upper and lower case letters, plus numbers. It may prevent a lazy or time-crunched attacker -- who checks lower case passwords only -- from compromising your account.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

IE Developer Toolbar Follow-Up

In an earlier post, I had commented on the fact that the IE Developer Toolbar has a problem in that it doesn't report cookies that are marked with the "HttpOnly" attribute. Well, as they said in the movie Independence Day, that's not entirely accurate (clip). There is an exception. The exception is when the cookie is a persistent cookie. The tool apparently doesn't utilize JavaScript in that case, and correctly reports the existence of the cookie. It's not actually a situation that would occur very often. Applications normally only need to mark *sensitive* cookies with HttpOnly, and sensitive cookies should not be persistent in the first place.

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