The Sneaky Session Fixation Attack: A Blast from the PHP PastA blog post by Jesse Luoto

This blog post visits a sneaky vulnerability called session fixation, which is I think is one of those odd vulnerabilities that you don't think about as a developer.

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Remember the good old days of PHP session management? About 10 years ago, creating a simple login/logout system was a breeze, thanks to PHP's built-in session functionality. But as we look back, we realize that those seemingly convenient sessions came with a significant security flaw: session fixation attacks. Let's dive into how it worked and why it was especially bad with the old way of doing PHP websites.

PHP Sessions: A Simpler Time

To refresh your memory, here's a quick recap of how PHP sessions worked back then. When a user opened up a website, PHP would set a cookie called PHPSESSID, containing a random string (the session ID). This session ID would be stored on the server side, acting as a key for a key-value storage where you could store any value you wanted.

Creating a session was as simple as adding this code block:


For a basic login form, you would have something like:

if (!$_SESSION['username']) {
    Username: <input name="username">
    Password: <input name="password" type="password">
    <button type="submit">Log in!</button>
} else {
    echo "Welcome, " . $_SESSION['username'];

The Sinister Side of Sessions

Everything seems fine and dandy, right? But there's a security issue lurking in the shadows: session fixation attacks. The problem arises from starting a new session before the user logs in.

An attacker can exploit this vulnerability by creating a session for themselves and injecting their own session ID into the victim's browser. This can be done through an XSS attack, or even by briefly accessing the victim's computer:

  1. The attacker visits the site on their own machine, obtaining a valid PHPSESSID.
  2. They then set the victim's computer's PHPSESSID cookie to the attacker's session ID.
  3. The attacker and the victim now share the same PHP session, but both are logged out.
  4. When the victim logs in, the attacker is also logged in as the victim on their own computer.

Sneaky, right?

Defending Against Session Fixation

There are some ways to mitigate session fixation attacks, such as creating a new session every time the user logs in:

if ($_POST['username'] && $_POST['password']) {
    if (checkPassword($_POST['username'], $_POST['password']) {
      $_SESSION['username'] = $_POST['username'];

This way the attacker's session is never upgraded to a logged-in session.

Final thoughts

Session fixation attack is the type of a vulnerability that you need to know to guard against, and I think it's not that well known since you'll need to be able to set the session cookie in the first place. The attack doesn't work all by itself; you'll need some initial access to set the victim's cookie to fixate the session.

This can be a good improvement for bug bounty severity if you have a super narrow attack that only allows to set a cookie (or even only the session cookie), but otherwise there are more straightforward attacks if you already have an XSS or physical access to the victim's computer.


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