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A quick Google search doesn't reveal whether it is important to logout of webapps (online banking, Amazon, Facebook, etc.), or if I am safe just closing the tab or browser. I am sure I heard on some TV show that it's best to logout...

What possible threats am I exposing myself to if I don't properly log out?

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Consider closing a tab being pretty much the same as not closing a tab. –  domen Oct 14 '13 at 10:12
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@domen this is not ALWAYS true. See e.g. my answer. –  AviD Oct 14 '13 at 20:15
    
In Latvia SwedBank internet banking takes in action IP address too. I guess that other banks does it too. Real life example: i set up two internet connection at home (packed based load balancing) and i cannot use internet banking at all, because after 2 or 3 clicks i get logged out. I authenticated with one IP and then made another request with second IP. In this case cookie stealing does not work. –  Guntis Oct 15 '13 at 5:34
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it doesnt matter if you use a Rails-application, because "Logout is broken by default in Ruby on Rails Web applications" ... SCNR –  that guy from over there Oct 15 '13 at 7:26
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Note this question was featured on LifeHacker, apparently this is a common problem... –  AviD Dec 15 '13 at 15:38

8 Answers 8

up vote 78 down vote accepted
+50

This is not a trivial, simplistic question. There are several different aspects you need to consider, and several different mechanisms and countermeasures that apply to several different threats in several different scenarios that are affected by several different clients. Let's examine these one at a time. (There will be a TL;DR at the end...)

  • If you're using a Public computer: LOG OUT.
    Any service you keep an account on should not be left logged in on a publicly accessible machine.

  • If you're using a Trivial unsensitive service: STAY LOGGED IN.
    This applies only to throw-away, temporary accounts, such as for Internet radio, where giving away access is nothing more than a nuisance.

  • If you're using Public Wifi: LOG OUT.
    Since the network is inherently untrusted, there is one big obvious THREAT: Session cookie theft. It is possible that your session was hijacked, and someone - either someone else on the network, or the hotspot itself - stole your session cookie. Of course, if this was the case, you wouldn't know, but then you may not be able to really log out either (if it is a malicious network or MITM, they have control of your entire connection - they might simply drop your logout request).

    That said, 3rd party theft of just your session cookie IS a valid threat (e.g. FireSheep), and explicit logging out prevents unlimited use. (Basically the damage may have been done already, but this stops it from continuing.)

    Even better would be to go to a trusted network, login, and explicitly log back out, just in case the MITM blocked your logout. Better yet is to change your password on the trusted site... But best to never access a non-trivial, sensitive site from an untrusted network.

  • If you're using All-day applications: STAY LOGGED IN.
    For services you use all day and want quick/easy access to, e.g. Facebook, email, etc - IF this is your own private (or work) computer on a trusted network, it is a sensible trade-off to leave your browser logged in long-term.

    THREAT: Malicious bystander

    Lock your computer any time you step away, even to get a cup of coffee. Or lock your office, if you have a physical door that noone else can get through. (Or have a home office, wheee!) Periodically log out and back in. Monitor any posts "you" make.

    THREAT: Other sites can register that you are logged in (e.g. to show you that important "Like" icon from Facebook). This is part of the trade-off that applies, while there are wider implications that are out of scope for this answer.

  • If you are using Any application that uses HTTP Basic Authentication (e.g. many routers): LOG OUT, AND CLOSE ALL BROWSER WINDOWS. Here is where it gets interesting, and this applies to the next section too.

    When you log in to a webapp using Basic AuthN, the browser caches your password, and sends it on every request. The browser's BasicAuth mechanism has no concept of session. Even if you repeatedly logout, the webapp does not - neither serverside nor clientside - have any way of "killing" the session. The only way to clear those cached credentials, is to kill the browser process.

    HOWEVER. Your choice of browser matters for this concept of "browser process". E.g.:

    • Firefox: Always a single process, no matter how many tabs and windows you open.

    • Chrome: Each tab is a separate process. However, there is another, "global", parent process. All the tab processes are child processes of this one (aka "job process" in Windows parlance), and they all share process memory through the parent. This is also true if you open a new window. So while Chrome's ample use of child processes with shared parent make its tabs particularly lively and robust, the downside is sharing process state. In other words, the only way to remove cached BasicAuth credentials from Chrome is to close all Chrome windows, every last one. Closing the tab alone will not help.

    • IE: tab/process model is identical (or similar) to Chrome... with one exception. By default, IE also opens all tabs in a child of the parent process. (Actually, this is not 100% accurate - some tabs share a child process with other tabs - but this doesnt matter in reality). However, if you add "-NoFrameMerging" to the IE commandline, it will create a completely new IE parent process. The difference here is that you can e.g. create a new parent window just to login to your router, and then close just that window when you are done. This clears your BasicAuth cache, without touching any other open IE windows. (Side note: it is actually possible to do this with Chrome too! It is a lot more involved, though, and requires you to create another browser profile on your machine.)

  • If you are using Sensitive applications, e.g. banking apps - ALWAYS EXPLICITLY LOG OUT, AND CLOSE ALL BROWSER WINDOWS. This part is a little more complicated, but a lot of the dependencies were already covered above.

    THREAT: Malicious bystander Locking your computer, as above, would make sense, however there is no need for the trade-off from before. Just log out.

    Session Timeout: In addition, most sensitive (e.g. banking) apps should implement some form of automatic idle timeout, so if you go out for the afternoon your session will automatically die at some point. This might not help with this threat, since the malicious bystander may just hop on your computer if you step out for 4 1/2 minutes to refill your coffee.

    THREAT: Session cookie theft

    Hopefully, sensitive apps are actively preventing this, with e.g. HTTPS, IDS, geo/fraud detection, etc. That said, it still makes sense to close that "window of opportunity", just in case - defense in depth, and all that.

    Session Timeout: As before, most sensitive (e.g. banking) apps should implement some form of automatic idle timeout, and will help minimize this threat too. However, even if you do know for a fact that this app does implement idle timeouts correctly, there is still a window of opportunity for the attacker. That said, in a relatively-secure app this is not much of a threat.

    THREAT: Cross Site Request Forgery (CSRF)

    This is the one you need to worry about.

    Say you are logged in to your bank. In the same window, in a different tab, you are browsing some dubious website. While viewing this website, it might be surreptitiously testing various well-known banksites, to see if you happen to be logged in to one of them. If you are, it will mount the CSRF attack (not all bank sites are vulnerable to this, but many still are). CSRF'd!

    Okay. Now say you are smarter than that other guy, and dont browse suspicious sites the same time your banksite is open. So, after you finish on your bank, you carefully close the tab. Only then do you open a new tab to browse to the dodgy site. Well, problem is, you are still logged in, and will be for a while (typically around 30 minutes, but it could be as little as 10 or as much as an hour...). CSRF'd!.

    (Note that the session timeout here does help, by shortening the window of opportunity, but there is still a chance of this happening within the window).

    Hmm. Well, I know, let's open a new browser window! Use that for bank work, then again CLOSE the tab, and again open a new one for the malware sites I like to play with. Whoops, see the above section on Basic Authentication - your choice of browser matters.

    Unless you're using "incognito/private browsing", or the "-NoFrameMerging" flag for IE, you are still in the same process family, and this still-open session will be shared between all your windows, at least until the server hits the idle timeout. Assuming it hasn't already been co-opted. CSRF'd!

    Okay, one more, just one. I read this overly long post somewhere, about how I always need to logout from my sensitive apps - so I do just that, before popping on to my criminal sites. Unfortunately, the application "forgot" to do a proper logout, it just redirects me out of the application (or erases my cookie, or...) instead of invalidating it on the server... CSRF'd!


So, TL;DR?

  • If you care about your account on this site: LOG OUT.
  • If you care about your account, and it uses Basic Authentication: LOG OUT AND CLOSE ALL BROWSER TABS AND WINDOWS.
  • If you don't care about your account - it doesn't matter what you do, so stop asking :-).

P.S. I did not cover things like Flash cookies, non-http sessions, and Integrated Windows Authentication. Enough is enough.

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Good stuff! one thing to note is that in your session cookie theft mitigations, going to a trusted computer and doing log-in/out assumes that the app. only allows a single valid session per user, and that establishing the session invalidates the previous one. Unfortunately not the case in a lot of apps (simultaneous login allowed is the majority in my experience). –  Rоry McCune Oct 14 '13 at 20:35
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@RoryMcCune that's true! I was actually thinking about a moving a laptop from open wifi to trusted network, where the session would be staying the same (actually, not necessarily...). You're right about untrusted computers though. –  AviD Oct 14 '13 at 20:38
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To tease out an important point of AviD's answer: If you really care about the account: Kill all browser processes, including any plugin spawns (embedded PDF, music player and applet popups); then access only the account's website; then re-kill everything before restarting normal browsing habits. Essentially ensure no parallelism while accessing critical accounts as browsers are "web operating systems" trending towards more parallelism and sharing, not less. –  LateralFractal Oct 15 '13 at 0:00
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As an aside, related to AviD's 2nd TL;DR bullet point: if using WebDeveloper plugin for Firefox, Miscellaneous|Clear Private Data|Clear HTTP Authentication. This will save you having to close all tabs and windows. –  Darren Cook Oct 15 '13 at 0:11
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It should be noted that Chrome and some other browsers have "incognito window" that has separate credentials and cookies cache. If you mind to open incognito window for logging in such site, you don't have to close any other windows afterwards. –  Jan Hudec Oct 15 '13 at 7:11

When logging in to a web service, a cookie is planted in your browser. This cookie has a unique ID value that identifies you while you're using the web service, and, possibly, when you come back later. If, somehow*, that identifier was stolen, the person possessing it could, possibly, use your account as if he was you.

Logging out, usually, invalidates this identifier for both you and the adversary. Neither of you will be able to use the identifier to tell the web service "Hi, I'm Angelo Hannes". That has the unfortunate side effect of forcing you to enter your username and password again to login.

"So, what should I do, then?", you ask. Well, it depends. Some sensitive web services (banking, government websites, insurance companies, etc.) have a short session time, i.e. they invalidate the identifier after 10-15 minutes of not using the service. Other sensitive web services (email inbox, which basically controls almost all of your other accounts) don't really invalidate the session that often, but they apply IP address restrictions (if you use the same session from a different IP address, the session is invalidated).

TL;DR

  • Public computer, extra paranoid, you think your session was compromised, or you really care about this service? Logout.

  • Private computer, you think your session is safe, and you really don't care about this service? It's okay to stay logged in.


* Your session can be stolen using known issues in the service (not using HTTPS, for example) or some zero-day vulnerabilities such as a newly discovered XSS attack in the service, a new vulnerabilities in your browser that discloses cookie information, or some malware installed on the computer you're using that steals session information (well, in that case it would have already stolen your username and password).

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So the threats are the same, while I am logged in and logging out does only shorten the time frame? –  Angelo.Hannes Oct 14 '13 at 10:57
    
I'd like to add that XSS can be utilized to perform request forgery, in which case the timeout on the cookie is irrelevant. –  Rohan Durve - Decode141 Oct 14 '13 at 12:40
    
This means, if my laptop gets stolen, the credentials should be automatically invalidated, because the IP will change? –  РСТȢѸФХѾЦЧШЩЪЫЬѢѤЮѦѪѨѬѠѺѮѰѲѴ Oct 14 '13 at 14:22
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@ŁukaszL. Some services have timeouts, other services don't. Some services have IP restrictions, others don't. –  Adnan Oct 14 '13 at 14:56
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If you actually care about the service (or compromising the service could lead to attacks that compromise services you care about -- e.g., use your email account to get into your bank account via a password reset), you should never use the service on a public untrusted computer or on public wifi (Well, technically, public wifi is fine if its https for the entire connection and neither your machine nor the CA has been compromised). –  dr jimbob Oct 14 '13 at 19:02

I'll try and provide an answer to this question in a manner inverse to the one's already posted above.

What are the risks associated with idle sessions in web applications?

  • Session Cookie Theft via XSS (if the session is not tied to the IP)
  • Cross Site Request Forgery (on the idle but still authenticated session).
  • Man In The Middle Attacks (using a sniffed session cookie using SSLStrip or due to Mixed HTTPS information disclosures)
  • Open Terminal (You left for a lunch break with PayPal open next to < insert random cyber criminal's name here > and came back to see your account empty because you didn't logout)

Timeout As stated earlier certain security critical applications like banking websites have low timeout values of generally five to ten minutes. However these applications generally also have random sequencing CSRF Prevention Tokens and IPs tied to sessions. Therefore even if your cookie is compromised, there is nothing a remote attacker can do with it if the security has been implemented properly.

Other websites like FaceBook do not time sessions out generally for better ease of access or usability. They do however support login notification, IP Binding to the cookie. Applications like Gmail or DropBox support 2-step SMS Auth to further improve security and make session theft useless if coming from a new un-trusted PC.

Therefore, the only worry I'd have is leaving sessions open on:

  • Public Terminals (Where you should be using private browsing anyway. Ctrl+Shift+P on FF)
  • Websites with poor security (Where the user is responsible for preserving the secracy of his cookies from the evil cookie monsters out there).
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An interesting attack vector would be to see if a man in the middle sniffer on your NAT'd LAN could break a session's encryption, obtain a cookie-token pair, forge a malicious post request, encrypt it with the encapsulated cookie-token and form data and send it off via your public IP. –  Rohan Durve - Decode141 Oct 14 '13 at 13:08

One of the biggest threats for not logging out is using a public computer. Depending on the browser configuration, just closing the browser may not end a session. If the user forgets to log out his OS user (or he may not even be able to) then someone else can access his webapp. This is, of course, not a very likely case. But webapps are often accessible for a large user group and some users may use public computers (universities, schools, libraries).

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Though I did only have my private devices in mind, good point in mentioning public accessible devices. Same goes for unattended or lost/stolen devices. –  Angelo.Hannes Oct 14 '13 at 7:45

Since a session does have a timeout, there is a only a short time of me being logged in, after I used the webapp.

That's not necessarily true. Depending on how the site implements their session management, they could use arbitrarily long timeout and may even use sessions that survive browser/OS restart.

Ultimately whether you should logout explicitly or not depends on what the web app is. Bank sites generally implements very short timeout, social networking sites usually implements essentially permanent login especially if they're also identity providers (OpenID, etc).

Stealing a session cookie is usually not easy, but it's possible and explicitly logging out prevents that, you generally should logout explicitly for high value sites.

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Could you please go into more detail, how to steal a session cookie? Is it generally possible, or only due to unknown or zero-day exploits? It would help to estimate the threat. –  Angelo.Hannes Oct 14 '13 at 7:43
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have a look at the Firefox Extension "Firesheep" to learn how easy it is to steal session cookies. –  Callum Wilson Oct 14 '13 at 8:08

Do not assume that a service has a timeout. Even if it has a timeout, an attacker could just simply collect your cookie and use it with a simple script that keeps pinging the service, sending your cookie, refreshing the "last seen" timestamp. There are several ways for website owners to protect themselves against this, but don't trust the website owners. Stealing a cookie is not as hard as it sounds (a search on youtube might show you exactly how easy it is), and your best protection for this case is indeed in logging out.

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If you not logout, the login cookie will remain valid for a given period (depending on implementation), because the server (where the web aplication runs on) does not know about the fact that you closed your browser. If someone has stolen your cookie, he or she can use it to login to the application and even extend the validity, because most implementations have sliding expiration.

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From a security perspective in my opinion the answer is simple. When you are done on a site logout. And when you are done with your browsing clear your cache and delete history, etc. You can even set your browser up to clear everything when you close the browser down. Leave as little traces as possible of what you have done.

And please do not click on any pop-ups or funny links in e-mails. Watch out for redirects from the site where you think you are to another site.

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protected by Adnan Oct 15 '13 at 10:54

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