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Fast, secure and efficient secure cookie encoder/decoder
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README.md

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Encode and Decode secure cookies

This package provides functions to encode and decode secure cookie values.

A secure cookie has its value ciphered and signed with a message authentication code. This prevents the remote cookie owner from knowing what information is stored in the cookie or modifying it. It also prevents an attacker from forging a fake cookie.

This package differs from the Gorilla secure cookie in that its encoding and decoding is 3 times faster and needs no heap allocation with an equivalent security strength. Both use AES128 and SHA256 to secure the value.

Note: This package uses its own secure cookie value encoding. It is thus incompatible with the Gorilla secure cookie package and the ones provided with other language frameworks. This encoding is simpler and more efficient, and adds a version number to support evolution with backwards compatibility.

Warning: Because this package impacts security of web applications, it is a critical functionality. Review feedbacks are always welcome.

Content

Installation

To install or update this secure cookie package use the instruction:

go get -u "github.com/chmike/securecookie"

Usage examples

To use this cookie package in your server, add the following import.

import "github.com/chmike/securecookie"

Generating a random key

It is strongly recommended to generate the random key with the following function. Save the key in a file using hex.EncodeToString() and restrict access to that file.

var key []byte = securecookie.GenerateRandomKey()

To mitigate the risk of an attacker getting the saved key, you might store a second key in another place and use the xor of both keys as secure cookie key. The attacker will have to get both keys to reconstruct the effective key which should be more difficult.

Instantiating a cookie object

To return an error if an argument is invalid, use securecookie.New().

obj, err := securecookie.New("session", key, securecookie.Params{
		Path:     "/sec",        // cookie received only when URL starts with this path
		Domain:   "example.com", // cookie received only when URL domain matches this one
		MaxAge:   3600,          // cookie becomes invalid 3600 seconds after it is set
		HTTPOnly: true,          // disallow access by remote javascript code 
		Secure:   true,          // cookie received only with HTTPS, never with HTTP
})
if err != nil {
    // ...
}

It is also possible to instantiate a secure cookie object without returning an error and panic if an argument is invalid. To do this, use securecookie.MustNew(). In the following example, session is the cookie name and the Path is /sec. A secured value may be stored in the remote browser by calling the SetValue() method. After that, every subsequent request from that browser with a URL starting with /sec will have the cookie sent along. Calling the method GetValue() will extract the secure value from the request. A request to delete the cookie may be sent to the remote browser by calling the method Delete().

var obj = securecookie.MustNew("Auth", key, securecookie.Params{
		Path:     "/sec",        // cookie received only when URL starts with this path
		Domain:   "example.com", // cookie received only when URL domain matches this one
		MaxAge:   3600,          // cookie becomes invalid 3600 seconds after it is set
		HTTPOnly: true,          // disallow access by remote javascript code 
		Secure:   true,          // cookie received only with HTTPS, never with HTTP
}

Remember that the key should not be stored in the source code or in a repository.

Adding a secure cookie to a server response

var val = []byte("some value")
// with w as the http.ResponseWriter
if err := obj.SetValue(w, val); err != nil {
    // ...
}

Decoding a secure cookie value

The value is appended to the given buffer. If buf is nil a new buffer ([]byte) is allocated. If buf is too small it is grown.

// with r as the *http.Request
val, err := obj.GetValue(buf, r) 
if err != nil {
  // ...
}

The returned value is of type []byte.

Deleting a cookie

// with w as the http.ResponseWriter
if err := obj.Delete(w); err != nil {
  // ...
}

Note: don't rely on the assumption that the remote user agent (browser) will effectively delete the cookie. Evil users will try anything to break your site.

Benchmarking

Encoding the cookie named "test" with value "some value". See benchmark functions at the bottom of cookie_test.go file. The ns/op values were obtained by running the benchmark 10 times and taking the minimal value.

Chmike Gorilla
Value len 84 112
Set ns/op 5527 14946
Get ns/op 4421 21142
Set B/op 342 3322
Get B/op 200 2784
Set allocs/op 3 37
Get allocs/op 3 39

The secure cookie value encoding and decoding functions of this package need 0 heap allocations.

The benchmarks were obtained with release v0.4. Subsequent release may alter the benchmark results.

Qualitative comparison

The latest version was updated to put the security in line with the Gorilla secure cookie.

  • We both use CTR-AES-128 encryption with a 16 byte nonce, and HMAC-SHA-256.
  • We both encrypt first then compute the MAC over the cipher text.
  • A time stamp is added to the encoded value.
  • The hmac is computed over the cookie value name, the ciphered time stamp and value.
  • Both packages don't take special measures to secure the secret key.
  • Both packages don't effectively conceal the value byte length.

The differences between the Gorilla secure cookie and this implementation are:

  • This code is more efficient, and there is still room for improvement.
  • This secure value encoding is more compact without weakening the security.
  • This secure cookie encoding is incompatible with other secure cookie encoding. I don't know the status of Gorilla's encoding.
  • This encoding adds an encoding version number allowing to change or add new encoding without breaking backwards compatibility. Gorilla doesn't have this.
  • This package provides a Delete cookie method.

This package and Gorilla both provide equivalently secure cookies if we discard the fact that no special measure is taken to conceal the key in memory and the value length. This package is quite new and needs more reviews to validate the security of the implementation.

Feedback and contributions are welcome.

Value encoding

  1. A clear text message is first assembled as follow:

    [tag][nonce][stamp][value][padding]

  • The tag is 1 byte. The 6 most significant bits encode the version number of the encoding (currently 0). The 2 less significant bits encode the number of padding bytes (0, 1 or 2). 3 is an invalid padding length. The number is picked so that the total length including the MAC is a multiple of 3. This simplifies base64 encoding by avoiding its padding.
  • The nonce is 16 bytes long (AES block length) and contains cryptographically secure pseudorandom bytes.
  • The stamp is the unix time subtracted by an epochOffset value (1505230500), and encoded using the LEB128 encoding.
  • The value is a copy of the user provided value to secure.
  • The padding bytes are cryptographically secure pseudorandom bytes. There may be 0 to 2 padding bytes. The number is picked so that the total length including the MAC is a multiple of 3. This simplifies base64 encoding by avoiding its padding.
  1. The stamp, value and padding bytes are ciphered using CTR-AES with the 16 last bytes of the key as ciphering key. The nonce is used as iv and counter initialization value. The tag and nonce are left unciphered.

  2. An HMAC-SHA-256 is computed over (1) the cookie name and (2) the bytes sequence obtained after step 2. The 32 byte long MAC is appended after the padding.

  3. The whole byte sequence, from the tag to the last byte of the MAC is encoded in Base64 using the URL encoding. There is no padding since the byte length is a multiple of 3 bytes.

The tag which provides an encoding version allows completely changing the encoding while preserving backwards compatibility if required.

Contributors

  • lstokeworth (reddit):
    • suggest to replace copy with append,
    • remove the Expires Params field and use only the MaxAge,
    • provide a constant date in the past for Delete.
  • cstockton (github):
  • flowonyx (github):
    • fix many typos in the README and comments.

Usage advise

It is very important to understand that the security is limited to the cookie content. Nothing proves that the other data received by the server with a secure cookie has been created by the user's request.

When you have properly set the domain path, and HTTPOnly with the Secure flag, and use HTTPS, only the user's browser can send the cookie. But it is still possible for an attacker to trick your browser to send a request to the site without the user's knowledge and consent. This is known as a CSRF attack.

Consider this scenario with a Pizza ordering web site. First let's see what happens when everything goes as expected.

The user has to login to the site to be allowed to order pizzas. During the login transaction a secure cookie is added into the user's browser. The user is then shown a form with the number of pizzas to order. When the user clicks the Order button, his browser will make a request to an URL provided with the form. It will join the field values and the secure cookie since the URL path and domain match the one specified at the login transaction.

When the server receives this request, it checks the cookie validity to determine who that client is and if he is legitimate. All is fine. The order is then forwarded to the pizza chef. The pizza is later delivered to the user.

Now comes the villain. He sets up some random site with a form and a validation button that the victim will very likely click (e.g., "Subscribe to spam" with a Please no button as validation button). The villain has set up the form so that the URL associated to the validation button is the URL to order pizzas. He will have added a hidden field with the number of pizzas to order set to 10!

When the user clicks that validation button, his browser will send a request to the pizza ordering site with the field value and the secure cookie since the URL matches the cookie path and domain.

The pizza ordering site checks the secure cookie and it will be authenticated. It will assume that the user issued that order. When the delivery man rings at the user's door with 10 pizzas in his hand, there will be a conflict and no way to know to know who's fault it is. Notice how the value 10 associated with the cookie in the ordering request was not signed by the user's browser.

To avoid this, the solution is to add a way to authenticate the form response. This is done by adding a hidden field in the form with a random byte sequence, and set a secure cookie with that byte sequence as value and a validity date limit. When the user fills that form, the server will receive back the secure cookie and the hidden field value. The server then checks that they match to validate the response.

An attacker can forge a random byte sequence, but can't forge the secure cookie that goes with it.

Note that this protection is void in case of XSS attack (script injection).

The above method works with forms, not with REST API like requests because the server can't send the random token to the client that can be used as a challenge. For REST API like authenticated transactions, the client and server have to both know a secret byte sequence they use to compute a hmac value over the URI, the method, the data and a message sequence number. They can then authenticate the message and the source.

The secret byte sequence can be determined in the authentication transaction with public and private keys. There is no need for TLS to securely authenticate the client and server. A secret cookie is no help here.

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