I am trying to get a handle on some terms and mechanisms and find out how they relate to each other or how they overlap. Authenticating a theoretical web application and mobile application is the focus. The focus is on the exact difference between token based authentication and cookie based authentication and if/how they intersect.

HTTP basic/digest and complex systems like oauth/aws auth do not interest me.

I have a few assertions which I would like to put out there and see if they are correct.

  1. Only using authentication tokens, without sessions, is possible in mobile applications. In a browser context, you need cookies to persist the tokens client-side.
  2. You exchange your credentials (usually username/pw) for a token which can be limited in scope and time. But this also means that the token and everything relating to it must be persisted and handled by the server as well.
  3. Tokens can be revoked server-side. Cookies do not have that option and will/should expire.
  4. Using only cookies means that sessionId is related to the user account and not limited in any way.

I am hoping I am not too far off the mark and am thankful for any help!

  • 8
    I'm not sure your understanding with #3 is correct. Web servers/apps can revoke a cookie in the sense that its session value can be disassociated with a user identity. The browser may continue to present it in requests, but the server will not honor it as proof of identity. If I misunderstood your meaning, can you please clarify?
    – PwdRsch
    Feb 17, 2015 at 20:51

3 Answers 3

  1. In Session-based Authentication the Server does all the heavy lifting server-side. Broadly speaking a client authenticates with its credentials and receives a session_id (which can be stored in a cookie) and attaches this to every subsequent outgoing request. So this could be considered a "token" as it is the equivalent of a set of credentials. There is however nothing fancy about this session_id string. It is just an identifier and the server does everything else. It is stateful. It associates the identifier with a user account (e.g. in memory or in a database). It can restrict or limit this session to certain operations or a certain time period and can invalidate it if there are security concerns. More importantly it can do and change all of this on the fly. Furthermore it can log the user's every move on the website(s). Possible disadvantages are bad scale-ability (especially over more than one server farm) and extensive memory usage.

  2. In Token-based Authentication no session is persisted server-side (stateless). The initial steps are the same. Credentials are exchanged against a token which is then attached to every subsequent request (it can also be stored in a cookie). However for the purpose of decreasing memory usage, easy scale-ability and total flexibility (tokens can be exchanged with another client) a string with all the necessary information is issued (the token) which is checked after each request made by the client to the server. There are a number of ways to use/create tokens:

    1. Using a hash mechanism e.g. HMAC-SHA1

      token = user_id|expiry_date|HMAC(user_id|expiry_date, k)

      where user_id and expiry_date are sent in plaintext with the resulting hash attached (k is only know to the server).

    2. Encrypting the token symmetrically e.g. with AES

      token = AES(user_id|expiry_date, x)

      where x represents the en-/decryption key.

    3. Encrypting it asymmetrically e.g. with RSA

      token = RSA(user_id|expiry_date, private key)

Production systems are usually more complex than those two archetypes. Amazon for example uses both mechanisms on its website. Also hybrids can be used to issue tokens as described in 2 and also associate a user session with it for user tracking or possible revocation and still retain the client flexibility of classic tokens. Also OAuth 2.0 uses short-lived and specific bearer-tokens and longer-lived refresh tokens e.g. to get bearer-tokens.


  • 4
    Be aware of byte flipping attack if you use b) with CBC mode. resources.infosecinstitute.com/… You may need to HMAC before encrypting to be able to detect alterations.
    – r00t
    Jun 21, 2015 at 14:59
  • 3
    You must use authenticated encryption (AEAD or encrypt-and-MAC), not just encryption. In case of not using AEAD, you must authenticate after encrypting and you must check authentication before decrypting. This is not optional, encryption without authentication is useless.
    – Z.T.
    Jul 20, 2015 at 13:36
  • Can you please clarify more why the session-based authentication is considered stateful?
    – fujy
    Nov 18, 2016 at 13:04
  • In other words, what is the state that the server is trying to maintain here?
    – fujy
    Nov 18, 2016 at 13:09
  • 1
    @fujy In the session-based auth, the server is maintaining the client's login state: Is he/she/it logged in? For how much time? That information is indexed by the session id, but it is stored by the server in a database, file system or memory. It is not stored on the id itself. Mar 8, 2017 at 2:31

HTTP is stateless, and in order to have an authenticated state, you need some kind of token used to reference information about the user. This session id is usually in the form of a random token sent as a cookie value. An OAuth Access Token is used to identify a user, and the scope of resources that user has access to. In applications that use OAuth single-sign on, an OAuth Access token typically is exchanged for a session id which can keep track of a wider variety of user state.

From an attacker's perspective, hijacking a session id, or OAuth Access Token, is as a good as a username and password, and sometimes it is even better. Session IDs must have security properties which protect user accounts from compromise.

From the developer's perspective, never reinvent the wheel. Use the session manager provided by your platform, and ensure it is configured to conform to the the OWASP Session Management guidelines.


So, on the session-based authentication, to increase the security in accessing resources which one is required:

  • It should be used as a replacement for a user's credential
  • It should always use a persistent cookie
  • It should identify returning users to the website
  • It should use 2-factor authentication

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