How Broken Authentication Tokens Can Adversely Affect Your Data Security?

You must have come across the term ‘identity theft’ in the real world scenario. Broken Authentication Tokens can be visualized as nothing but the equivalent of ‘identity theft’ in the world of internet.

Modern-day tech-savvy hackers are taking the concept of ‘identity theft’ to an unprecedented high by indulging in malicious practices of data theft assuming someone else’s identity. Exposing the vulnerabilities present in user authentication process, a hacker can potentially gain access to sensitive data points in the disguise of the actual user. That’s the reason Broken Authentication Tokens must be prevented at any cost. Otherwise, you are at the risk of serious data security crisis.

What is an Authentication Token?

Authentication tokens are used to correctly identify a particular user, establish a user session and manage the session till the session expires. The entire lifecycle of user activities is taken care of by the authentication tokens – right from user authorization mechanism to the management of active user sessions. Once the user logs out, the token must be ‘killed’, so that someone else could not hijack the session and log into the account of another user. Broken authentication vulnerability mainly arises due to the flawed implementation of user authentication process.

OWASP Advisory:

Open Web Application Security Project, or more commonly OWASP, a worldwide non-profit community focused on improving the security of web environments, reckons broken authentication vulnerability as the second most critical security threat to today’s web applications. What’s more worrisome is the fact that all existing web servers, application servers, and web applications are susceptible to issues related to broken authentication and session management. If proper security measures are not taken to prevent broken authentication tokens, it can lead to serious information security and data privacy violations.

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How Does It Affect You?

As already pointed out, flawed implementation of the authentication process is the primary cause of security breaches involving broken authentication vulnerability. Web applications use session tokens to identify each user and keep track of his/her activities. If the session tokens are not protected throughout the user engagement period (from a log into log out), a potential hacker can hijack an active session and assume the identity of a legitimate user to steal confidential data.

OWASP has listed down seven possible fault gateways that are frequently exploited by the hackers for stealing broken authentication tokens. It can occur when –

  1. User credentials are stored on the server without employing any hashing or encryption technique.
  2. Credentials can be guessed or overwritten by trial and error method (brute force attack).
  3. Session IDs are exposed in the URL as object parameters.
  4. Session IDs are vulnerable to session fixation attacks.
  5. Session IDs do not time-out after a period of inactivity and tokens are not canceled (killed) properly during session logouts.
  6. Session ID does not get rotated after successful login.
  7. Passwords, Session IDs, and other credentials are sent over unencrypted connections.

Preventive Measures:

You can perform penetration testing to effectively identify broken authentication tokens. Moreover, it has to be ensured that the user credentials are kept encrypted during inactive mode (stored on server disks) and while at transition (user login and logout process). In-fact, all sensitive information must be stored in encrypted formats with the help of an advanced transport layer security protocol (TLS/SSL). Enforce HTTPS sessions for any resources that interact with user credentials and passwords.

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Strict cookie control may also be implemented to mitigate this threat. Alongside intelligent cookie control, one can also deploy session monitoring agents for detecting any authentication tokens that are left unprotected. A well-defined security policy must also be in place, and there should be periodic audits to review the security compliance from time to time.


Whether you wish to develop a complex web application or start a blog using a trusted CMS application like WordPress, it is practically impossible to build a full-proof web environment that can’t be hacked. As newer attack surfaces continue to emerge with each passing days, the possibility of security violation also aggravates. However, there is no harm in being proactive in your approach. If you implement appropriate preventive measures to protect the authentication tokens, then it can go a long way in ensuring your data integrity.

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