Securing communications between a client and a server often requires credentials to identify both parties. That is where the different authentication techniques comes in. Two popular authentication methods are cookie-based and cookieless authentication. However, choosing any one of them depends on the organization's requirements. Both come with their benefits and challenges. This article will give a quick walkthrough of cookie-based and cookieless authentication along with their advantages and disadvantages.
Cookies are pieces of data used to identify the user and their preferences. The browser returns the cookie to the server every time the page is requested. Specific cookies like HTTP cookies are used to perform cookie-based authentication to maintain the session for each user.
The entire cookie-based authentication works in the following manner:
- The user gives a username and password at the time of login. Once the user fills in the login form, the browser (client) sends a login request to the server.
The server verifies the user by querying the user data. If the authentication request is valid, the server generates the following:
- A session by utilizing the user information
- A unique ID, known as the session ID
The server then passes the session ID to the browser that keeps it. The server also keeps track of the active sessions.
- The browser has to submit this generated session ID while sending a subsequent request. Every time the server validates the session ID. The session ID helps the authentication process identify the user and provides access accordingly.
- When the user logs out of the application, the session gets destroyed from both client (browser) and the server. It discontinues the authentication process from happening again through the respective session ID.
- Availability: In cookies-based authentication, cookies can be made available for an extended period, maintaining a session for a long time.
- Easy Configuration: Websites can deliver cookies by configuring them as per requirement. For example, a website can send cookies that will expire as the users close the browser tab. It is also possible to configure cookies for a specified length of time on the client-side.
- User-friendly: Cookie-based authentications are simple, and the cookies used in this method are user-friendly. Users can choose what to do with cookie files that have kept user credentials. All modern browsers come with settings to clear the cookies. Users can find cookies in the hard drive and delete them manually.
- Vulnerable to CSRF: Cookie-based authentications are prone to Cross-site Request Forgery (CSRF) attacks. Hence, they often require additional security postures for protection.
- Less Mobile-friendly: Cookie-based authentication does not work well with all native applications.
- Limitations: There are certain limitations and concerns such as size limit (not more than 4KB of information per cookie), browser limitations on cookies, user privacy, etc., come with cookies and cookie-based authentication.
- Less Scalable: Cookie-based authentication is less scalable, and the overhead rises when the user count increases on a particular site.
Cookieless authentication, also known as token-based authentication, is a technique that leverages JSON web tokens (JWT) instead of cookies to authenticate a user. It uses a protocol that creates encrypted security tokens. These tokens allow the user to verify their identity. In return, the users receive a unique access token to perform the authentication. The token contains information about user identities and transmits it securely between the server and client. The entire cookieless authentication works in the following manner:
- The user logs into the service by providing their login credentials. It issues an access request from the client-side by sending the credential and API key (public key) to the application server.
- The server verifies the login credentials that checks the password entered against the username. Once approved, the server will generate a unique session token that will help authorize subsequent actions.
- This access token is sent back to the client via URL query strings, post request body, or other means. The server-generated signed authentication token gets assigned with an expiration time.
- The token gets transmitted back to the user's browser. On every subsequent request to the application server or future website visits, the access token gets added to the authorization header along with the public key. If there is a match from the application server against the private key, the user can proceed. If a given token expires, a new token gets generated as an authentication request.
- Scalable and Efficient: In cookieless authentication, the tokens remain stored on the user's end. The server only needs to sign the authentication token once on successful login. That makes the entire technique scalable and allows maintaining more users on an application at once without any hassle.
- Better Performance: Cookie-based authentication requires the server to perform an authentication lookup every time the user requests a page. You can eliminate the round-trips with tokens through the cookieless authentication technique. In cookieless authentication, the access token and the public key are added to the authorization header on every page request.
- Robust Security: Since cookieless authentication leverages tokens like JWT (stateless), only a private key (used to create the authentication token) can validate it when received at the server-side.
- Seamless Across Devices: Cookieless authentication works well with all native applications. Tokens are much easier to implement on iOS, Android, IoT devices, and distributed systems, making the authentication system seamless.
- Expiration Time: Usually, tokens get generated with an expiration time, after which they become invalid. Then a new token needs to be obtained for reauthentication. If a token gets leaked, the potential damage becomes much smaller due to its short lifespan.
- Single-key Token: One of the significant challenges with cookieless authentication is that these access tokens rely on just one key. Tokens that use JWT leverages a single key for authentication. If the developers/administrators handle the key poorly, it can lead to severe consequences that can compromise sensitive information.
- Data Overhead: Storing a lot of data increases the overall size of the token. It slows down the request impacting the overall loading speed. This slowing down ultimately hampers the user experience. Thus proper development practices need to be followed, regulating minimum but essential data into the token.
- Vulnerable to XSS and CSRF: Cookieless authentications are susceptible to XSS and CSRF attacks. So, the best practice is to have a short expiration time for access tokens. Keeping a longer expiration time might allow the attackers to hijack the access token and use it to gain unauthorized authentication.
LoginRadius provides multiple methods to implement a cookieless login workflow leveraging industry and security best practices. As a consumer-centric Identity platform, LoginRadius ensures that modern implementation methodologies comply with the changing security landscape. The cookieless authentication workflows detailed below are systems that LoginRadius has developed support for even before the recent browser-based privacy policies and are a core part of the LoginRadius platform.
The LoginRadius API has been architected and designed to function as a cookieless authentication system. Once authentication occurs, a session token gets returned to the requesting client in the form of an access token which can be leveraged to take further authorized actions against the Consumer account. It is a core part of the LoginRadius authentication workflows, and APIs developed based on Oauth 2.0 protocols.
These APIs provide flexibility in generating access tokens based on consumer authentication requests and are automatically validated and signed leveraging the LoginRadius API Key and Secret. Detailed API documentation is available here.
In addition to the LoginRadius APIs, JWTs are a standard method to handle cookieless login. Once authentication is completed and verified, a signed token can be generated(leveraging LoginRadius APIs) to pass the consumer session to the client.
JWTs are a standard industry mechanism leveraged by various service providers and tools, making them ideal for interoperability with multiple applications. Find additional details on how to use JWT as part of your authentication workflows here.
In addition to the above two options, LoginRadius provides flexibility and support for various authentication and authorization standards that support a cookieless authentication approach. Outbound authentication workflows such as OIDC and Oauth 2.0 allow for a modern standardized approach to authentication.
These are industry-recognized and recommended authentication and authorization protocols that comply with security and privacy best practices, including supporting a cookieless authentication approach. Check out our dedicated documentation on outbound workflows.
Cookieless authentication can facilitate more secure and scalable authentication. You should decide how to authenticate consumers considering your requirements and the benefits and challenges of cookie-based and cookieless authentication.