5.0 User tracking methods

By: Kurt Seifried, [email protected], Copyright Kurt Seifried, 2001


Authenticating users varies in difficulty, but is only the first step for many web based projects that require user authentication. Chances are the user's interaction with the system will involve more then one transaction (i.e. they will "login" to the system, check their email, maybe post a message to a board, and then ask for some protected information). You do not want the user to have to authenticate each time they try to access something, you want them to authenticate at the beginning of the session, and once the session is over you want them to re-authenticate the next time they access the system. So you need some way to keep track of the individual user (simply using the IP they come from or similar methods is not enough), and you need some way of keeping track of the session (once they get up and leave their computer you do not want someone else to be able to use their credentials).

5.1 Cookies

Cookies are a method of storing data on the users computer, the server creates the cookies, and send it to the browser. Cookies can be permanent (stored on the users hard drive, sometimes with no expiry date) or session cookies (stored in memory, gone once the browser is closed). There are some problems with cookies however, many security conscious users will disable them, or delete them periodically (a variety of software to manage cookies stored on your machine exists).


There are some tools available to view and modify cookies on the client end. Once of these is HTTPClient which is a java http client library with many features, including the ability to view cookies (both session and stored). It is available under the LGPL license.


5.1.1 Stored cookies

Cookies can be stored on the users harddrive, allowing them to be persistent (assuming they don't get deleted). This is typically used by organizations with a low security requirement, and is typically used more for tracking users then actual authentication (although some sites like Hotmail, Microsoft MCP site, etc. use it for authentication). Generally speaking this method is a bad idea since anyone with access to the computer can simply go to the website and be automatically authenticated, as well the cookies could be copied off of the system and used on another system to gain access. If you have any sort of real security requirement then I would advise against using these. If however you simply want to authenticate users for tracking people (like many online newspapers) then they are acceptable.

5.1.2 Session cookies

Cookies can also be stored in memory for the length of the session (i.e. until the users turns the www browser off). This is much safer then storing them on the users harddrive, and you still retain all the capabilities of cookies. Simply authenticate the user and create a cookie that is unique, and give it to them. Store that cookies unique data on the server (in a flat text file or database, if you use a networked database multiple servers can accept an authenticated user, allowing you to do easy load balancing), and simply request the cookie from the user each time they attempt to do a transaction that requires authentication. By storing the cookie data, time it was issued, and last time it was used you can easily enforce a session limit (of say 30 minutes), and an inactivity timeout (of say 5 minutes) which greatly decreases the likelihood of someone using that persons credentials (because they left for lunch and forgot to turn their web browser off). You can also add a "logout" function that flushes the cookie data from the server (although training users to do this can be difficult). Several web servers include software modules to assist in this (so you don't need to completely reinvent the wheel).

5.2 X.509 certificates

By their very nature X.509 certificates usually contain data on the owner (the public key and data are typically signed by a third party, such as Verisign or Thawte). If you trust the singing party (i.e. it might be your internal Certificate Authority) then you can use the information contained with the certificate as the users identifier and simply have them authenticate for each transaction (for smartcards however this may require them to type a password in each time, but if the certificate is stored on the machine (BAD IDEA) then you can simply access it). Generally speaking if you are using smartcards you will probably want to use some other method for keeping track of the user (such as cookies or URL).

5.3 HTTP header based authentication (HTTP auth)

Using HTTP authentication (i.e. http header based authentication) generally saves the data used during the session so the user is not required to constantly login in every time they view a page. These are accessible as environmental variables to the CGI script typically, so are very easy to use for other types of authentication. You can easily use HTTP based header authentication across multiple servers (the data source is typically a text file or a database file). HTTP header authentication data is cached in the browser session so the user isn't constantly required to reauthenticate, however this means that if the users then leaves the browser running (even if they go to another site) someone else could go back to the site, and would be authenticated (since the credentials are stored in memory). MSIE can also permanently store the username and password, many users will be tempted to do this (which makes their life easier). You can disable this in the browser, and there are tags you can place in the webpage to prevent it, see section 6.1.2. Since HTTP is stateless the server has no idea whether you have "left" the site or not, you might browse a site, leave your browser open for 5 days, then go back to the site, your username and password would be automatically sent. This is especially dangerous if you access the site from an Internet kiosk, in many cases you cannot shutdown the browser running on these systems. Also because the authentication happens at the webserver level and not a CGI it is harder to track what is going on without monitoring log files or some other solution. For high security applications, or applications that will be used by non-savvy computer users some timeout method should be combined with the authentication to log out "stale" sessions.

5.4 Unique URL's

One effective method to track users that is completely browser independent (i.e. all browsers support it no matter what) is to use unique URL's.

5.4.1 Appending data to the URL

Simple tag on a unique string of data to the URL, and store that string in a database along with the time it was issued and last used (basically similar in concept to cookies). This is a somewhat trickier method, but it is supported by all web browsers which is a definite advantage. One site that makes heavy usage of this is www.sun.com, go to it and click any button, you will end up with a URL like:


which is probably unique (I haven't actually bothered to analyze it). Simply store the string in a database and you can enforce maximum session length, and idle timeouts. You can also add a "logout" function that flushes the unique data from the server (although training users to do this can be difficult). Several web servers include software modules to assist in this (so you don't need to completely reinvent the wheel).

5.4.2 DNS names

Another technique is to use a unique DNS names. Simply use a wild card for the DNS domain, for example with Bind:

*.www-server.example.org	IN	A

Any DNS request (such as nsjw73judnhsi8u.www-server.example.org or 45.www-server.example.org) will end up at the IP You would of course need to configure your web server appropriately, either making the default site the one used, or use a modified web server that accepts *.www-server.example.org and serves it a specific site (i.e. co-hosting multiple sites using this technique is potentially difficult). You can then have the web server hand the DNS name to the script or you can query the web client for the appropriate environmental variable. As always an attacker can easily modify this data, so do not trust it implicitly.


Another method of tracking a user is to use the HTTP_REFERRER environmental variable once they have authenticated. I have only seen a few sites doing this, but it is effective, simply specify that the user must come from a certain page (like login.html). This method is somewhat useful if you use "unique" URL's, however if the URL are pretty standard it is really only useful for restricting a set of pages to certain users, and not very helpful for tracking actual individual users. Since you need to do CGI programming and use "unique" URL's to make use of this technique you may as well store the data in a database and access it there.

5.6 Hidden form fields and other HTML code

Another method that is universally supported by browsers and requires no special configuration is the use of hidden form fields. The major problem with this is the caching of webpages (although you can set HTTP headers that tell the browser not to cache). It is similar in concept to using cookies, you can hand the user some information that you can later retrieve, using hidden form fields (this is the technique my ISP uses to view your configuration webpages for email and so forth). Simply hand back a unique string, store it in a database, and you can enforce a maximum session, and/or an idle timeout (so you don't have to worry as much about someone using the client when the user walks away). You can also add a "logout" function that flushes the unique data from the server (although training users to do this can be difficult).



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