HomePostswhy cookies are best

Why Cookies Are the Best Place to Store Authentication Tokens

Date
Last Updated
Profile Picture
Peter White@petewht
Contents

In this post, I propose that same-site secure cookies are the most secure, easy-to-use and seamless option for authentication, and you should not use locally stored approaches in most situations.

Where should authentication happen?

In my opinion, authentication should happen on the backend (BE) upon request.

For instance, when a user clicks on a delete user button, the BE checks if it is possible before completing the action. You would never trust a FE-only check, as it could be easily manipulated by a malicious user.

If you need to know who the user is and whether they can do an action in advance, just do a request to /api/me, then store this in context.

This BE-first approach leads to me to the conclusion that you should use same-site secure cookies, as this will be automatically attached to every request. Storing the token elsewhere on the client (e.g. in LocalStorage, in IndexedDB or even in a Web Worker) would just create another state to manage and require it to be manually attached to every request.

Why cookies are superior

LocalStorage is not synced to the server, is not validated, and is fully accessible to external JavaScript. Same-site secure cookies, on the other hand, are validated, secure, and automatically attached to every request, making them a perfect fit for BE authentication.

Note, that sameSite means your BE authenication surface must be bound to a single top-level domain, as defined by the Public Suffix list.

Common misconceptions with cookies

There are some common misconceptions about cookies that we need to dispel:

  • GDPR does not require user consent for mandatory, first-party cookies, but it does regulate marketing cookies. So no, this does not mean you need a cookie notice
  • Cookies are not default "better for XSS", but setting httponly prevent client-side access to the cookie. But remember, if an attacker can run arbitrary JavaScript on your page, it's game over. Look for protection against that elsewhere (e.g. Content Security Policy)
  • Setting up LocalStorage is not simpler than setting up cookies. You don't need to touch the cookie on the frontend; the backend can set and read it, authenticate on request.
  • Cookies do have a size limit, but this is usually not a problem in practice.
  • CSRF attacks are a downside of cookies, but same-site cookies and CSRF tokens largely eliminate this risk

Summary

Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for every application, and your choice of authenticated method depends on your use case and security requirements.

However, using same-site secure cookies and authenticating on request is my preferred approach, as it is robust, secure and simple.


Thanks for Reading!

I always appreciate feedback or suggestions for future blog posts. You can find me on Twitter or if you want to improve the article to help future readers, please feel free to submit a PR.

🦉 2719 days

Duolingo Streak

Proudly created in beautiful Sætre in Norway 🇳🇴