HTTP Security


Requests and responses between client and server are sent as strings. This mean someone on the same network, using packet sniffing techniques could read the messages sent back and forth. By copying the session id, someone could craft a request and pose as someone else without having to know the account’s username and password.

With HTTPS, every request/response is encrypted before reaching the network. Packet sniffing is still possible but the messages being encrypted, it is rendered useless.

HTTPS uses a cryptographic protocol called TLS for Transport Layer Security. Earlier versions used SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) and some people still refer to TLS as SSL. TLS is the correct term though.

The most recent version of TLS is TLS 1.3.

Transport Layer Security Protocol

TLS provides three important security services:

TLS Handshake

TLS Handshake process is used to:

  • Agree on which version of TLS to use between the client and server in establishing a secure connection
  • Agree on the algorithms to be included in the cipher suite
  • Exchange the symmetric keys that will be used for message encryption

One should be aware that this overhead as an impact on performance: it adds up to two round-trip of latency in addition to the TCP Handshake.

A more detailed explanation of the TLS Handshake can be seen here: TLS Handshake.

Same-Origin Policy

Same-origin policy restrict and un-restrict interaction base on the origin of the interaction. It is an important policy to guard against session hijacking.

The origin consists of three elements of the URL:

  • The scheme (http, https…)
  • The hostname
  • The port

Same-origin policy typically restricts cross-origin requests where resources are being accessed programmatically using APIs. Linking, redirects and form submissions to different origins are typically allowed.

Same-origin policy is a great layer of security but may cause problem for developers with a legitimate need for cross-origin requests. This problem can be dealt with user CORS* for Cross-Origin Ressource Sharing.

CORS works by adding a new HTTP header of a list of allowed specified origins.

Session Hijacking

Session hijacking is when an attacker gets a hold of someone else’s session id. In this case, the attacker can access the website as the victim, without having to get hold of username and password, and without the user’s knowing.

Some countermeasures includes:

  • Resetting sessions by issuing a new session id and invalidating the previous one. Often used when a user access sensitive part of a website (credit card, account information etc.)
  • Setting an expiration time on sessions: arbitrary time after which the session is forced to reset
  • HTTPS to reduce the chance of someone stealing a session id

Cross-Site Scripting (XSS)

An attack in which a user-generated HTML or JavaScript input is executed as is by the website. In other word: the browser will interpret the given code and execute it.

Using maliciously crafted JavaScript, an attacker could inject code that reads the session id of the user or inject a malicious form that sends the information back to the attacker.

Some countermeasures includes:

  • Always sanitize user inputs and disallow HTML/JavaScript and prefer safer format like Markdown.
  • Escape user inputs when displaying it so that the browser does not interpret it

Escaping a character means replacing it with a combination of ASCII characters. This lets the client (browser) knows to display the characters as is instead of processing it. See HTML entities