Session management best practices: what you need to know
When you log on to a web-based application, there is a lot going on behind the scenes of this temporary user/system interaction, or session. Session management refers to the process of preserving the user’s identity, permissions, and other information for the duration of the session.
Since sessions involve private and sensitive information such as passwords and other authentication protocols, it's important that unauthorized parties are not able to see or access that information. Improper access management can result in authorized access to your system and sensitive user data.
In addition to regulating access, the application should be able to recognize the user each time they log on for a seamless user experience. Adhering to session management best practices helps ensure that sessions run smoothly and securely.
When it comes to providing superior remote desktop support, session management is a critical part of keeping your end customers safe and satisfied. Let’s take a closer look at why this is important.
Why session management matters in IT
Websites and browsers use HTTP, which is a “stateless” protocol. This means that the server does not retain information about sessions or the user. However, web applications need some way to retrieve information or recognize users from one session to the next. This is where session management comes in.
Session management can be broken down into different steps:
- Session creation. When a user logs into a web application, the server creates a session. The session receives a unique identifier, generally a session ID or token, which is often stored in a cookie on the user’s browser.
- Storage. The server stores information related to the session. This can include user-specific settings or items added to a shopping cart.
- Termination or expiration. Sessions end when the user logs out or is inactive for a period of time.
- Tracking. Each time the user logs on to the web application, the session ID helps the server identify the user, and it retrieves information related to the user and previous session activity.
Since sessions can be vulnerable to attacks, management is critical to security. If developers don’t pay attention to security trends or best practices, sessions can be vulnerable to a multitude of issues. These include cross-site scripting (XSS) attacks, in which attackers insert malicious scripts into web pages, enabling them to steal session cookies, or brute-force attacks, in which a malicious actor repeatedly tries to guess passwords on authorized user accounts.
These are just a few of the possible liabilities involved if there is a lack of strong session management. Aside from security concerns, inadequate session management can lead to user frustration if they experience frequent logouts or if their information and preferences aren’t saved across sessions.
Best practices for session management
Implementing robust session management best practices can help prevent or mitigate security risks and support a positive user experience. These are the top session management best practices to follow.
Configure session ID properties correctly
To maintain the security and integrity of user sessions, session IDs should be configured in a way that makes them hard to guess, predict, or decrypt.
- Use strong randomization techniques and make sure that IDs are of sufficient length (at least 128 bits/16 bytes).
- Avoid predictable patterns, such as sequential numbers or IDs based on timestamps or other easily identifiable values.
- Make sure session IDs are unique across all applications or services.
- Avoid using obvious names for cookies.
- Don’t put session IDs in URLs.
You can use tools like a cryptographically secure pseudo-random number generator (CSPRNG) to generate unique session IDs and implement logging mechanisms to track their usage. These practices will help make sure that session IDs are generated and configured in a way that is secure and unpredictable to prevent vulnerabilities.
Attribute all cookies
Cookies are small pieces of data stored on users’ browsers. They help servers track user interactions with a web application, so proper attribution is critical to session security and user experience.
Best practices for attribution include:
- Use HttpOnly and Secure Flags. This reduces the risk of XSS attacks and ensures the cookie is only sent over secure HTTPS connections.
- Configure cookies to be valid for shorter periods. This limits the ability of attackers to reuse stolen cookies.
- Limit the scope of cookies to the specific domain and subdomains that require access.
- Make sure cookies are invalidated when the session ends.
Provide appropriate access controls
Appropriate access controls in session management ensure that users have the correct level of access to the resources and functionalities in a web application. A few best practices to follow when implementing them include:
- Use role-based access control (RBAC), in which roles assigned to users dictate what actions and resources they can access.
- Define permissions at a highly granular level to prevent providing users with extraneous access.
- Consider implementing dynamic access controls, which restrict access to specific resources based on factors such as user location, role, and even the time of day.
- Regularly review permissions and adjust them for users who have changed roles or no longer require access to certain areas or functionalities.
Renew/regenerate session IDs when permissions change
When permissions change due to user roles being updated or their access levels restricted or expanded, users should retain access to just the resources and features they are authorized to use on the web application. When renewing or regenerating session IDs due to permission changes, make sure you follow these best practices.
- Have mechanisms in place to detect permissions changes. You should determine events or triggers that indicate these changes and develop logic for renewal and regeneration.
- Invalidate the existing session and force the user to reauthenticate for access.
- Generate a new, unique session ID for the user that is associated with their updated permissions.
- Copy over any relevant session data, user settings, and authentication information to the new session.
- Send the new session ID to the user's browser as a cookie and update the session state on the server.
- Notify the user about their need to reauthenticate due to the permissions change.
Session encrypting and recording
Encrypting web sessions helps maintain data confidentiality, while recording supports accountability and auditing when troubleshooting or investigating incidents during sessions.
For encrypting, it’s important to encrypt data while being transmitted between the user’s browser and the web server as well as to prepare it for storage. You can obtain a Transport Layer Security (TLS) / Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) certificate from a trusted authority to enable encrypted communication.
Recording should log session activities such as login attempts and other actions. For potentially suspicious actions like changing settings or other information, make sure you record the user’s IP address and a timestamp. Ensure that session logs are encrypted and stored securely. This will provide an audit trail for additional monitoring or an investigation.
Finally, make sure you abide by any regulatory requirements (such as GDPR or HIPAA) that mandate specific requirements for storing session data.
In session management, network segmentation can support improved security by restricting communication between segments. This can be beneficial if one segment is attacked or compromised. The power to define different rules and policies for each segment also allows for more control over access.
To segment a network for optimal session management, keep these practices in mind:
- Classify data and assets according to their sensitivity, importance, and regulatory requirements, then ensure the network architecture reflects those factors.
- Isolate administrative functions and other sensitive systems and data in separate segments that have stricter access controls and strong authentication.
- Use the principle of least privilege to ensure users can access only the segments and functionalities they are authorized for. This limits the entire network from being exposed to potential attacks or breaches.
- Implement strong mechanisms for monitoring and logging traffic for suspicious behaviors during sessions.
Session termination on logoff
Effective session management ensures that the session is properly terminated when the user logs off or the server ends it due to expiration. This reduces the risk of unauthorized access, breaches, and data exposure.
Whether initiated by the user or the server, these steps should be taken:
- The server removes the session data associated with the user's session or marks it as invalid.
- The cookie should be set to expire immediately after termination or shortly afterward. This prevents the browser from sending the now-invalid session ID in subsequent requests.
- The server should record details about the logoff, such as the time and date.
- The application’s user interface should update to show that the user is logged out, such as by redirecting to a landing page, showing a message indicating they have logged off, or changing the “log out” button to “log in.”
Audit logs are essential for detecting and investigating unauthorized access and improving session management security. To ensure your logging is useful, secure, and accurate, implement these practices:
- Clearly define what events and activities during sessions need to be logged.
- Include critical relevant details such as the user's identity, timestamp, session ID, IP address, the action that took place, and what resource they accessed.
- When possible, prevent audit logs from being modified or deleted. If not, protect them from tampering by implementing measures such as digital signatures, checksums, or hashing.
Users are valuable resources to help ensure strong session management. Make sure they know how to use the web applications safely and protect their accounts with these tips:
- Provide clear and accessible documentation that explains how to log on and log off correctly, how to keep their authorization credentials safe, and how to recognize attempts at infiltrating their sessions.
- Remind them to uncheck the “remember me” option and completely log out of web applications when they are using a device that is not their own, such as at a library.
- Encourage users to report suspicious activity or attempts to gain access to credentials or other information.
If you use a software solution to assist with session management, providing ample support will help ensure your teams leverage it effectively and to its fullest extent. Here are some ways you can encourage consistency across users to deliver a great customer experience:
- Provide documentation that explains session management best practices, concepts, configuration options, and security considerations.
- Create a knowledge base that covers a wide range of session management topics and frequently asked questions.
- Share information about updates, improvements, and new features in the solution.
- Encourage collaboration between support and development teams to improve session management and the user experience.
Software solutions for optimal session management
With today’s increasingly dispersed workforce, it is more critical than ever to arm IT techs with the tools they need to quickly resolve remote support and access requests. This is why leading organizations leverage remote desktop software to resolve customer support needs while maintaining secure and controlled access across their environment.
ConnectWise ScreenConnect enables technicians to provide secure on-demand remote desktop and mobile support, helping end users get back to work faster. Total browser and OS compatibility, flexible configuration and customization options, and world-class security ensure seamless session management, every time.
Experience ScreenConnect for yourself by activating your free 14-day trial, no credit card required, today.