Daily Archives: 2008-05-16

Hardened stateless session cookies

The root cause behind the last-but-one WordPress cookie debacle was that the authors invented their own password hashing and cookie generation scheme. This is generally a bad idea, since it’s hard even for experts to get these right. Instead, whenever possible, a well-studied proposal should be chosen. It is for this reason that I suggested the phpass library for password hashing, and the Fu et al. stateless session cookie proposal.

These choices would be a substantial improvement on the previous custom design (had they been implemented correctly), but I still was not quite satisfied. The Fu et al. scheme has the property that an attacker who can read the cryptographic key stored in the database can create spoofed cookies. Given the history of WordPress security, it seems likely that there will eventually be a vulnerability discovered which allows the key, which authenticates cookies, to be leaked.

It’s good practice in security engineering to design systems with the widest possible range of attacker capabilities in mind. I therefore designed a cookie scheme which would do all that the Fu et al. design did, but also maintained some of its security properties if the attacker has read-access to the authentication database and knows the cookie authentication key. I published a paper on this topic — Hardened stateless session cookies — at the 2008 Security Protocols Workshop.

The trick behind my scheme is to store the hash of the user’s password in the cookie, and the hash of that in the authentication database. This means that it’s possible for the server to verify cookies, but the authentication database doesn’t contain enough information to create a fake cookie. Thus an attacker with read-access to the database still needs to know the user’s password to log in, and that isn’t stored. There are some additional subtleties to resist different attacks, and those are described in the paper.

I hope this proposal will trigger discussion over this important problem and lead to improved cookie authentication schemes.