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A protocol for secure browser sessions on the World Wide Web

by Zachary Voase <>

Last update:


This is a work in progress, based on my talk at Identiverse 2023. It’s intended to be a starting point for discussion, not a complete or unambiguous spec. Please get in touch if you have questions, comments, or suggestions; I’ll update this page once I find a good locus for further discussion.


WebSession is a proposed replacement for cookies when establishing and maintaining user sessions in a Web browser. Its goals are to be more secure, offer more user control, and protect privacy better than cookies, while remaining fast and easy to implement.

WebSession is separate from authentication protocols like usernames and passwords, WebAuthn, and OpenID Connect. Those prove who you are; WebSession is a way for the server to remember who you are across multiple HTTP requests. WebSession also allows for existing unauthenticated use cases supported by cookies, where you may not have a user account (or want to log in), but still need to maintain state across requests. Examples include anonymous shopping carts and ‘guest’ checkout, personalization without creating a user account, A/B testing, analytics, and more.

What’s wrong with cookies?


Currently when you log into a website, the server generates a unique session ID and stores it in your browser as a cookie. On every subsequent request, your browser sends this cookie to the server to prove that it’s you making the request. This cookie, whether a JWT or opaque session identifier, is called a bearer token, because it grants the holder the right to skip a full authentication ceremony on every request, and no additional ‘proof’ is required other than knowledge of the token.

If someone steals this cookie, they can impersonate you. Stolen cookie attacks have happened in the past with disastrous effect, and there is a thriving trade in stolen cookies on the dark web.

Cookies have a large surface area of attack, and little room for error. Secure use of cookies for tracking a browser session includes, but is not limited to:

  • Setting the Secure flag so they are only sent over secure connections;
  • Setting the SameSite flag to prevent CSRF attacks;
  • Setting the HttpOnly flag to stop them from being read in JavaScript and/or stolen in XSS attacks;
  • Setting a reasonable expiry, and enforcing it on the server;
  • Correctly scoping the domain and path so that only the endpoints that are authorized to use the session receive the session cookie;
  • Ensuring your server does not have any application code that may inadvertently reflect a Cookie header back to a client (which would break the protection given by HttpOnly);
  • Ensuring cookies are not inadvertently logged or stored unsafely.

Even with all of these, a compromised client, an unsecured application log, or an eavesdropper on the connection after TLS termination could result in a cookie being stolen. It is difficult to distinguish an attacker using a stolen cookie from the legitimate user to whom it was originally issued.

Privacy, User Control, and User Experience

Cookies were invented in 1994, and started out as a generic mechanism for persistent key-value state which were quickly adopted to provide authentication too. However as an ad hoc K/V store, there is nothing reliably distinguishing ‘essential’ (i.e. authentication) cookies from analytics, tracking, advertising, or preference cookies. As a result of increasingly strict privacy laws across the world, users are now beset with cookie banners across the Web, with no standard way to either consent to or reject non-essential cookies.

We need a protocol that is dedicated to session maintenance, that gives control back to the user either through prior browser configuration or a consent-on-first-visit model. Browsers could use system-native, accessible UIs that don’t interrupt content loading or page layout.

It’s also very common that a website wants credentials to be cleared when the user is inactive for a certain amount of time. This is important for sensitive applications such as banking and healthcare. Currently there’s no way to enforce that a cookie is cleared on device lock or user inactivity, especially because security requires that such cookies not be visible to JavaScript. A native session management solution should be able to request that the browser clear a session in the case of device lock, the user navigating away, etc.

How would WebSession solve these problems?


WebSession does not rely on bearer tokens. Instead, the browser and server agree on a shared secret at the beginning of the session, using Diffie-Hellman key exchange (DHKE). This secret is never sent over the network, and it cannot be computed by an eavesdropper, even with full observation of requests and responses, thanks to the security guarantees of DHKE.

For every request, the browser generates a unique string (aka a ‘nonce’), which it signs with the shared secret. The nonce and signature are sent with the request, and the server can then verify that signature, while also checking to make sure that nonce has not been used before.

WebSession does not treat security as optional, so there are no flags like Secure, SameSite, or HttpOnly to forget. An endpoint that inadvertently reflects headers would be useless if the server is tracking nonces properly. A server-side expiry mechanism is still needed, and domain/path scoping may be necessary. Even so, if a ‘bad’ endpoint receives a valid WebSession header, it is limited to forging a single request, rather than having a reusable session cookie that may allow an unbounded number of impersonated requests.


WebSession tokens are opaque identifiers, unlinkable back to real-world user identities. Without extra work, they only identify the browser instance between requests, not the user.

Because WebSession is dedicated to session maintenance and nothing else, a client could theoretically reject all cookies on any supporting site, ideally skipping the jarring cookie banner experience.

Furthermore, the browser-native integration could include things like a request to clear a session on inactivity, device lock, navigation away from the page, etc. This is best done via a browser-integrated, purposeful protocol for session management rather than ad hoc JavaScript on every site.

What else could WebSession provide?

Typically a browser session is identified with a particular human user, and one of the most exciting new standards on the web today is WebAuthn, which allows for cryptographically secure user verification. In theory, WebSession could be extended with options asking the client to use the WebSession derived secret as the challenge for a WebAuthn assertion. This would provide strong proof to the server that the session has been established by the authenticated user, thwarting even active MITM attacks.

Protocol Description

Initial Request

The browser makes a standard GET request to the website. In this case we’ll assume the URL is

Server Challenge

The server generates and stores an ephemeral keypair for DHKE, hereby referred to as Spub and Spriv. This will most likely be a point on the NIST P-256 or X25519 elliptic curves.

The server then responds to the initial request with a WWW-Authenticate header with the auth scheme WebSession, followed by a challenge as unpadded base64url-encoded CBOR. These parameters include:

  • alg: an indication of the DHKE algorithm and other parameters. For example:
  • P256, P384, P521 etc.: ECDH over the corresponding NIST prime curves;
  • X25519, X448: ECDH over Curve25519 and Curve448. At a minimum, implementations should support P256 and X25519, since these are compact, widely available, and provide 128 bits of security.
  • exp: the session expiry, as a UNIX timestamp (seconds since the epoch in UTC);
  • h: which hashing algorithm to use for signatures. Must be one of SHA-256, SHA-384, or SHA-512.
  • s: the encoding of Spub, specific to alg. Weierstrass curves like the NIST prime curves should use the compressed point format; Curve25519 and Curve448 points are usually only expressed in compressed form anyway. Since we’re using CBOR, these can be included in the object as a raw byte string.
  • Any as-yet undefined options.


The following challenge:

    "alg": "X25519",
    "exp": 1685370900, // 2023-05-29T14:35:00Z
    "h": "SHA-256",
    "s": 0x52e1a650620c196f029930d8be54efac7cb4a47ffcc04b0c7799b4bee5f028c8 // binary

Would result in this HTTP response:

200 OK
WWW-Authenticate: WebSession pGNhbGdmWDI1NTE5Y2V4cBpkdLgUYWhnU0hBLTI1NmFzWCBS4aZQYgwZbwKZMNi-VO-sfLSkf_zASwx3mbS-5fAoyA

Client Response

At this point the browser can decide whether to initiate a session or not, either based on interactive user feedback, previous behavior, or prior configuration. If no session is desired, the client simply doesn’t respond to the challenge, and continues making requests as usual. The rest of this document assumes a session is desired.

  • The client generates its own keypair, scoped to the origin (hereafter Cpub and Cpriv);
  • It derives a shared secret, using DH between Spub and Cpriv, and then applying HKDF on the resulting bytes (with the hashing algorithm h requested by the server earlier);
  • It chooses a 32-byte secure random nonce;
  • It builds a token body as a CBOR object containing:
  • s: the server public key;
  • c: the client public key;
  • o: the origin;
  • n: the nonce.
  • It produces a signature by HMACing the token body using the shared secret as the key;
  • Finally, it constructs an ASCII token by unpadded base64url-encoding the signature and body and then concatenating them with a ‘.’ character.

In Python pseudocode:

c_pub, c_priv = gen_keypair()
shared_secret = hkdf(dh(c_priv, s_pub))
nonce = secrets.token_bytes(32)
body = cbor.encode({
    's': s_pub,
    'c': c_pub,
    'o': '',
    'n': nonce
signature = hmac(shared_secret, body)
return base64url(signature) + '.' + base64url(body)

This token is then included in the next client request in the Authorization header, with an auth scheme of WebSession. For example:

GET / HTTP/1.1
Authorization: WebSession 8qbsNWTO9bWTSSKPy6anrZ0wFS_OCLpBU6z8sMCYIXc.pGFjWCECti-THEz2E5V2GVho6BlS4hYCc2iSIQM3OAigEOIPqrRhc1ghAtuVyC-gkXNvLDiI3EX3vsoKr3LouSNokIwh2kbEr636YW9zaHR0cHM6Ly9leGFtcGxlLmNvbWFuWCCOCJPacqTehDoux9VHjkZW_1r9lqV2gWIjK81uhqCOqg

Server Validation

The server validates an incoming request by:

  • Splitting the token signature and body at the ‘.’ character and base64url-decoding them;
  • CBOR-parsing the body to extract Cpub, Spub, origin and nonce;
  • Looking up the corresponding Spriv for the session;
  • Deriving the same shared secret, using Cpub and Spriv and HKDF;
  • The shared secret may be cached for subsequent requests against the same Spub and Spriv; if it is not cached, the server MUST validate that the included Cpub does not change across requests.
  • Validating that the nonce has not been used already for this session. Important: at this point, the nonce should be added to the ‘seen’ set, because nonces should be invalidated whether the signature validation passes or fails. Failure to do so can allow attackers to brute-force a valid signature for a single nonce.
  • (Recommended) validating the origin is as expected;
  • Computing the HMAC over the provided token body and checking the signature. Note: it’s important to use a constant-time comparison function for the signature checking. Many crypto libraries have a ‘verify’ function which will do this, rather than computing the signature as a string and checking for equality.

In Python pseudocode:

sig_b64, body_b64 = token.split('.')
sig_bytes, body_bytes = base64url_decode(sig_b64), base64url_decode(body_b64)
body = CBOR.decode(body_bytes)
s_pub, c_pub, origin, nonce = body['s'], body['c'], body['o'], body['n']
check(body['o'] == '')  # Recommended
shared_secret = lookup_secret(s_pub)
if not shared_secret:
    s_priv = lookup_s_priv(s_pub)
    shared_secret = hkdf(dh(s_priv, c_pub))
    cache_shared_secret(s_pub, shared_secret)
check_nonce_reuse(s_pub, nonce)  # nonces can safely be scoped to sessions
mark_nonce_as_seen(s_pub, nonce)
expected_signature = hmac(shared_secret, body_bytes)
# Return True if successful, False if failed
return constant_time_equal(sig_bytes, expected_signature)

In the case of failure, the server should return a 403 Forbidden (which is often used for bad Authorization header values).


  • Option to request a WebAuthn assertion if discoverable credentials are present
  • Option to request expiry on device lock/user inactivity.