The Chrome team is embarking on a clever and bold plan to change the recipe for cookies. It’s one of the most consequential changes to the web platform in almost a decade, but with any luck, users won’t notice anything has changed.
But if you’re a web developer, you should start testing your sites and services now to help ensure a smooth transition.
What’s this all about?
As originally designed, cookies were very simple. When a browser made a request to a website, that website could return a tiny piece of text, called a cookie, to the browser. When the web browser subsequently requested any resource from that website, the cookie string would be echoed back to the server that first sent it.
A bit too simple, as it turns out.
Browser designers have spent the last two decades trying to clear up the mess that this one simple feature causes, and alternatives might never gain adoption.
There are two major classes of problem with the design of cookies: Privacy, and Security.
The top privacy problem is that cookies are sent every time a request is made for a resource, even if that request is made from a completely different context. So, if you visit A.example.com, that page might request a tracking pixel from ad.doubleclick.net. This tracking pixel might set a cookie. The tracking pixel’s cookie is called a third party cookie because it was set by a domain unrelated to the page itself.
If you later visit B.textslashplain.com, which also contains a tracking pixel from ad.doubleclick.net, the tracking pixel’s cookie set on your visit to A.example.com is sent to ad.doubleclick.net, and now that tracker knows that you’ve visited both sites. As you browse more and more sites that contain a tracking pixel from the same provider, that provider can build up a very complete profile of the sites you like to visit, and use that information to target ads to you, sell the data to a data aggregation company, etc.
Today, Brave blocks 3rd party cookies by default, while Safari’s ITP feature does something more intricate. Firefox and the new Edge have “Tracking Prevention” features that block 3rd-party cookies from known trackers.
Most browsers offer a setting to turn off ALL third party cookies, and older versions of Internet Explorer used to P3P block cookies that did not promise to abide by reasonable privacy protections. However, almost all users leave 3rd party cookies enabled, and enough sites sent fraudulent P3P declarations that the P3P support was ripped out of the only browser that supported it.
The security problems with cookies are a bit more subtle.
In most cases, after you log in, a site will store your identity in a cookie, such that you don’t have to reenter your password on every page, or retap your security key every time you do anything. An authentication token is stored in a cookie, and each request you make to a site carries that cookie and token.
The problem is that this creates the possibility of a cross site request forgery attack, in which an attacker carefully crafts a request to a website to which you are logged in. When you visit the attacker’s site (say, to read a news article or view an image link posted to your social media feed), the attacker’s page instructs your browser to send its malicious request (“Transfer $1000 from me to @badguy”) to the victim site where you are logged in (e.g. https://bank.example).
Normally, such a request would be ignored or responded to by a demand for credentials, but because your browser is already logged in to bank.example and because your browser made the request, the server receives the cookie containing your authentication token and deems the request legitimate. You’ve been robbed! This class of attack is called the confused deputy attack.
Now, there are myriad ways to protect against this problem, but they all require careful work on the part of web application developers, and a long history of exploits shows that failing to protect against CSRF is a common mistake.
Other Privacy and Security Problems
I’ve described the biggest and most prominent of the security and privacy problems with the design of cookies, but those are just the tip of the iceberg. There are many other problems, including:
- Cookies are sent to servers which respond with data that might allow Cross Site Leaks or violations of Same Origin Policy. For instance, an attacker might include in their page several guesses as to your identity. If they guess right (e.g. your cookie matches the URL identity), the images loads and now the attacker site knows exactly who you are:
- Cookies can be trivially stolen in a XSS Attack if the HTTPOnly attribute was not set.
- Cookies can be trivially leaked if the server forget to set the Secure attribute and the site isn’t on the HSTS preload list.
- Same Origin Policy blocks reading of cross-origin resources, but this depends on the integrity of the browser sandbox. Attacks like Spectre weaken this guarantee. Ambient authentication (like cross-origin cookies) weakens Cross-Origin-Read-Blocking‘s ability to prevent a compromised renderer from stealing data.
Cookie Design Improvements
Over the years, browsers have introduced more and more features and toggles to help lock down cookies, from the Secure and HTTPOnly attributes to Cookie Prefixes (nee Magic Named Cookies).
Perhaps the most promising improvement is a feature called SameSite cookies, by which cookies can opt-in to being sent only in a first-party context:
Set-Cookie: __HostAuth=F123ABCA; SameSite=Strict; secure; httponly;
This helps protect your site against CSRF attacks and helps mitigate leakage of the user’s identity in a cross-site context.
There’s a nice SameSite cookie explainer (with pictures!).
While broadly supported by browsers, the SameSite directive isn’t getting used everywhere it should be.
Big Changes are Coming!
So the Chrome folks plan to change that.
In Chrome 80 and later, cookies will default to SameSite=Lax. This means that cookies will automatically be sent only in a first party context unless they opt-out by explicitly setting a directive of None:
Set-Cookie: ACookieAvailableCrossSite; SameSite=None; secure; httponly
This change is small in size, and huge in scope. It has huge implications for any site that expects its cookies to be used in a cross-origin context.
What’s the Immediate Good?
In one fell swoop, many websites will get more secure. Sites that were previously vulnerable to CSRF and cross-site leak attacks will be protected from attack in the most popular browser.
Privacy improves, because setting and sending of 3rd party cookies are blocked-by-default:
Who’s on board?
We plan to match this change in default for the new Edge browser (release timeline TBD). However, there’s no plan to match this change for Internet Explorer (please stop using it!) or the old Edge (v18 and earlier).
Per Chromium’s Intent-to-Implement announcement, Firefox is looking into matching the change, although they’ve joking-not-joking suggested that they’re going to let Chrome lead the charge (and bear the brunt of the compatibility impact) before turning the feature on by default.
Per the I2I, Safari has not yet weighed in on this change. Safari’s ITP feature already imposes many interesting restrictions on cross-site cookies.
What Can Go Wrong?
If users visit a site that expects its cookies to be available but the cookies are missing, users might get a confusing error message suggesting that they toggle a setting that won’t help:
Or, the site might just redirect between its identity provider and itself forever.
These sorts of problems happen on sites that use Federated Identity providers that depend on accessing cookies from 3rd-party subframes:
To fix this, the identity provider site will either need to set SameSite=None on its cookies, or will need to use a browser storage feature (e.g. localStorage) that is not impacted by this change. Please note that other browser features do impact the availability of DOM Storage, so it’s not a silver bullet.
The Chrome team has set an ambitious timeline which calls for turning this feature on-by-default for Chrome 80, slated for stable release on February 4th, 2020. Chrome’s rollout plan includes enabling the new default on an experimental basis in Chrome 79 pre-release [Beta/Dev/Stable] channels for machines which are not externally managed — attempting to defer walking into the compatibility minefield of enterprise intranets. Presently, this exclusion does not apply to machines that are domain-joined via AAD due to a limitation in Chromium.
The Chrome team also announced two enterprise policies for Chrome 80 that will allow admins to opt-out of the new default entirely, or to opt-out only specific sites. Edge expects to offer these same policies.
Developers who wish to enable the SameSite-by-Default feature locally for testing purposes can do so by visiting chrome://flags and searching for SameSite:
Set the SameSite by default cookies feature to Enabled and restart the browser.
You can view the cookies used by the current page using the Application tab of the Developer Tools; the column at the far right shows the declared SameSite attribute:
The Chrome team have enabled logging in the Developer Tools to notify web developers that cookie behavior is changing. Visit chrome://flags/cookie-deprecation-messages to ensure that the warnings are enabled:
If you then explore my test page, you can see the notices from the tools:
The Cookies subtab of the Network tab picked up a new checkbox “show filtered out request cookies” which allows you to see (in yellow) which cookies were not sent for the selected request due to SameSite rules:
Cookies restricted by SameSite rules are also logged in NetLog captures (issue 1005217).
Problems and Accommodations
While the vast majority of cookie scenarios will continue to work as expected, compatibility breaks are inevitable. Unfortunately, some of these breaks might not be trivially fixed by adding the SameSite=None attribute.
For instance, older versions of Safari treated SameSite=None as SameSite=Strict, which means that servers must avoid sending the None token to Safari 12.
The .NET Framework’s cookie writer used to simply omit the SameSite attribute when the SameSiteMode was “None.” Changing this will require the affected sites to update their framework to a version with the patch.
Early in our investigations, we found another problem related to how SameSite impacts cookies sent while navigating.
Specifically, over a million sites first set an anti-CSRF cookie on themselves, then redirect to a federated Login provider, then the Login provider POSTs the login information back to the site. That initial anti-CSRF cookie is only meant to be used in a first party context. Crucially, however, SameSite cookies are not sent on navigations if the navigations use the HTTP POST verb. Making the anti-CSRF cookies SameSite=Lax by default breaks this scenario and thus breaks tons of websites.
The Two Minute Mitigation
Demanding these security cookies be set to SameSite=None would be both onerous (many more sites would need to change) and misleading (because these cookies are really only meant to go to a 1st party context).
To address this breakage, the new default was adjusted to allow a SameSite-Lax-by-Default cookie to be sent on a subsequent POST requests for two minutes, significantly reducing the breakage without giving up all of the security benefit of the change.
Note that the 2 minute mitigation might not be enough for login scenarios that take longer than 2 minutes. For instance, consider the case where the login flow is happening in a background tab, or you have to fetch your Security Key, or a child must get a parent’s permission, etc. Sites that wish to handle scenarios like this will need to store a copy of their anti-CSRF token elsewhere (e.g. sessionStorage seems appropriate).
The Chrome team plans to eventually remove the 2 minute mitigation entirely.
Compat Landmine: document.cookie
In Firefox and Safari, the document.cookie DOM property matches the Cookie header, including omission of cookies that were restricted by SameSite navigation rules.
In contrast, in Chrome and Edge, SameSite cookies that are omitted from the Cookie header are still included in the document.cookie collection following a cross-origin navigation. I’ve been convinced that this actually makes more sense, although the reasoning is subtle [issue].
Assuming the rollout happens on schedule, users will get more security and more privacy. But that’s just the start.
The next step is to combat the “non-secure-cookies-are-trackable” attack mentioned previously. To prevent non-secure cross-site cookies being used by network observers to follow users around the web, SameSite=None cookies will be blocked if set without the Secure attribute. Chrome’s timeline for enabling this change by default seems squishier, but ChromeStatus claims it is also slated for Chrome 80.
After that, the next step is to combat the inevitable abuse by trackers.
Because trackers can simply opt their own cookies out of restrictions by setting SameSite=None, trackers will do so. But this isn’t is bad as you think– by forcing sites to explicitly declare each cookie for which cross-site use is intended, browsers can then focus extra love and attention around such cookies.
If we peek at Chrome’s flags page today, we see an interesting hint about the Chrome team’s plans:
Enabling that option enables EnableRemovingAllThirdPartyCookies which adds a new Remove Third-Party Cookies button to the All cookies and site data page. When clicked, it pops the following dialog:
The HandleRemoveThirdParty() function invoked by the Clear button clears not only the cookies from those domains, but also all of the site data for the sites on which those cookies existed. This provides a strong disincentive for sites to opt-in to SameSite=None cookies unless they really need to.
(Disclaimer: Chrome might never launch the “Clear third-party cookies” button, but it’s in the code today).
You can expect that browser designers will soon dream up new and interesting remediations for cookies marked for access across multiple sites. For instance, browsers could limit the lifetime of those cookies to days or hours, or even a single browser session (tricky).
We live in interesting times!
Update: Chrome pushed back experimenting with this feature from Chrome 78 to Chrome 79.
PS: If you’re a Fiddler user, you can use this script to easily visualize which cookies are being set with which SameSite values.
Cookie-dough hero photo by Pam Menegakis on Unsplash.