Internet, Security, Technology

Roaming authentication with Apache mod_rewrite

November 7th, 2007 by Jeff | Dump Core

I mentioned last week that I was working on a neat Apache mod_rewrite trick for locking down access to certain administration pages, but that I wasn’t having much success with it. Well, it seems to be working now and, as promised, I wanted to share it with anyone who might be interested. Fair warning to non-technical readers: extreme geekery lies ahead.

First and foremost, I can’t claim full credit for this idea. It borrows some from Steve Gibson‘s roaming authentication scheme outlined in episode #113 of the Security Now! podcast. In that show (and subsequently continued in episode #115), Gibson outlines his method of allowing his employees to access secure portions of his site while traveling. The method described here is not quite as secure as his, as I’m forcing things to happen at the Web server software layer as opposed to the application layer and thus don’t have the same fine granularity of control he has. However, it uses many of the same ideas.

It’s relatively easy with mod_rewrite to protect certain resources of a site by restricting access to certain IP addresses. Consider the following:

RewriteCond %{REQUEST_URI} ^/store/admin/.*
RewriteCond %{REMOTE_ADDR} !^192\.168\.13\.
RewriteCond %{REMOTE_ADDR} !^127\.0\.0\.1$
RewriteRule ^/store/admin/.* /store/ [R,L]

This rule set essentially says: (1) if the requested URL starts with the string “/store/admin/” and (2) the IP address of the requesting client does not begins with “192.168.13.” or (3) is not exactly “” then (4) redirect all requests for URLs starting with “/store/admin/” to the root URL of the store, “/store/”. Essentially, we’re only allowing access to what is apparently the administrative portions of an online store to a very limited number of IP addresses, one of which is fully qualified (the “loop-back” address of and the rest belonging to a range ( through Anyone outside these IPs will be transparently redirected to the front page of the store. (Redirecting is much friendlier than outright forbidding access.) All of this takes place in Apache itself, before we even get to the application and any potential security flaws it might have. There are no worries about hacking the store software itself to deny access. Of course, we can list any number of REMOTE_ADDR entries that we wish; each condition is a regular expression (which are negated here by the “bang” at the front) so we can filter on any octet we want and can easily specify real, outside IPs rather than private ones. For example, for this site I limit access to my various admin sections to the IP of my cable modem and our outside IP at work.

However, what happens when you are required to go on a trip and need to access the administrative parts of the site while on the go? Obviously, you can’t add the hotel’s outside IP to this rule set in advance (imagine asking the front desk for that information), and you probably won’t be able to add it easily once you get there. Sure, WordPress and the store front software have login security on their various admin interfaces, but we’re trying to protect those from hackers, right? Aside from reopening them to the entire Internet before the trip and closing them again once we get back, there aren’t very many options. How then can we identify approved “roaming” users and/or machines so they can access the admin sites without being inside a hard-coded list of IPs?

Gibson’s answer was to optionally set a secure cookie in the user’s browser if they access the admin site within one of the approved IPs first. Being within an approved IP, they aren’t restricted by the access rule and they are allowed to reach the login prompt. During login, they are prompted on whether or not they want to enable roaming access on this particular machine. If they agree, a secure cookie is set in the browser and set to expire at some date in the future. Later, when the user attempts to access the admin site outside of the approved IP list, the site checks to see if the cookie has been set. If present, the user is allowed to log in, just as if they were within one of the approved IPs. The cookie acts as a kind of two-factor authentication: the first factor being “something you know”, the user name and password, and the second being “something you have”, the cookie. Since the cookie is set in secure mode (HTTPS), it will only be sent back to the site over a secure connection. And since (well behaved) browsers only allow a site to read the cookies it has itself set, no other site should be able to read it.

This is all well and good… if you have access to the source of the application you’re trying to secure and you’re willing to hack it. Gibson wrote his own store front, so this was relatively easy for him to integrate. But I want to secure WordPress, a third-party store app, and a few random subdirectories that are pretty much statically built HTML. As much as I like running Open Source software, I usually prefer not to muck around with things if I can help it, lest I screw something up. Thus, I don’t particularly want to hack WP and the store to add this extra layer of functionality. Fortunately, though, mod_rewrite gives us a mechanism through which we can accomplish basically the same thing without modifying the underlying application. In theory, since all this occurs before we even reach the application, one could argue it may even be more secure than the application’s authentication mechanisms themselves.

You can actually set browser cookies via mod_rewrite rules. Consider what happens if we insert the following before the rules we defined above:

RewriteCond %{REMOTE_ADDR} ^192\.168\.13\.
RewriteCond %{HTTP_COOKIE} "!
(.+; )*admincookie=uniqueval(; .+)*"
RewriteRule .* - [CO=admincookie:uniqueval:.domainname.tld:43200:/store/]

This rule set essentially says: (1) if the remote IP starts with “192.168.13.” and (2) there isn’t a cookie already set by the name “admincookie” then (3) set a cookie named “admincookie” with the value “uniqueval” for the domain “.domainname.tld” (assuming that’s our real domain name) for a period of 30 days (60 minutes x 24 hours x 30 days = 43,200 minutes) restricted to the path “/store/” and its subdirectories. Now let’s modify the rule set from before:

RewriteCond %{REQUEST_URI} ^/store/admin/.*
RewriteCond %{REMOTE_ADDR} !^192\.168\.13\.
RewriteCond %{REMOTE_ADDR} !^127\.0\.0\.1$
RewriteCond %{HTTP_COOKIE} "!(.+; )*admincookie=uniqueval(; .+)*"
RewriteRule ^/store/admin/.* /store/ [R,L]

Note that we’ve added a new condition. In addition to checking for the approved IP list, we also check to see if the “admincookie” has been set and that its value is what we expect (“uniqueval”). Note the parenthetical parts at the beginning and end of the cookie regex; these should make sure we match the unique cookie name/value pair, regardless of how many cookies are present. (Also note the quotes around this regex; since whitespace delimits the parts of the rewrite statements, the quotes are required to include the spaces after the semicolons in the regex. Without the quotes, the regex produces a “bad flag delimiters” error when Apache parses the configuration file.) Since each approved item’s entry is negated, the rule is only applied if none of them match. So now we should be able to get into the site remotely if and only if we’re inside an approved IP or we have the secret cookie, which we know is only set if we’ve been in one of the approved IPs first. Instant roaming authentication!

To summarize, the primary advantages to this scheme are:

  • Restricts access to specific requested URIs to specific IP addresses and/or ranges and to machines outside those addresses that have a special roaming authentication cookie.
  • The roaming cookie can only be set from within one or more of the authorized IPs.
  • The cookie is set and checked at the Web server level, before the request reaches application code, so this scheme can be placed on top of third-party applications as an additional layer of security. No changes to the application layer are required.

There are, of course, a few caveats:

  • Based on these rules alone, none of the information transmitted back and forth is encrypted; it’s all sent in the clear, which may potentially be sniffed by a man in the middle. Then again, you can always use mod_rewrite to force certain URLs to always use SSL (assuming you have a secure certificate), thereby securing the connection first. All WP admin functions, the GPF Store, and my other secured admin locales here on this site are all secured via SSL, so that helps in keeping my site secure by eliminating sniffing. (Of course, if you go this route, don’t forget to copy any necessary rules from the main Apache configuration file to the SSL config file, as the secure site will be treated as a different virtual host with its own set of rewriting rules. This little hiccup is what was keeping me from publishing this for quite a while.)
  • Forcing SSL, however, doesn’t necessarily protect the cookie itself. Gibson’s roaming authentication cookie required an SSL connection. This is called a secure mode cookie. While I’m still doing research into this, as far as I can tell so far mod_rewrite does not have the facility to specify secure mode in a cookie set by a rewrite rule. Thus, the above cookie is not secure and will be sent with each request in or below the specified path, encrypted or not. The cookie is then theoretically susceptible to sniffing attacks. Setting a secure mode cookie is easy enough to do in application code, but not apparently so in mod_rewrite.
  • The value of the cookie is currently hard-coded to a set value, and every browser accessing it within the approved IP will receive the same hard-coded cookie value. Ideally, the cookie should be unique to each browser and somehow obscured or, better yet, encrypted. Unfortunately, while I’ve been researching this also, so far I haven’t come up with a way to create such a unique token natively within mod_rewrite. (Remember, all this is occurring in Apache before we even reach application code.) Right now, I’m using a rather large hash of a unique pass phrase string I use a small command-line script to create a very long, highly random string using random numbers, several hashes, a little bit of Blowfish encryption, and some random string manipulation, but the cookie value is still technically hard coded. It may be possible to write a cron that will periodically create a new value token, update the Apache config file, and restart Apache. This will update the value every so often, but it seems quite a hassle. (Plus, the user under which the cron runs has to be root in order to modify both the config file and to restart Apache.)
  • Similarly, there’s no way to distinguish between browsers behind the approved IP. My desktop is unlikely to roam anywhere, so it technically doesn’t need the cookie. Meanwhile, if my parents bring their laptop over and visit this site from that machine while within my network, they’d get the roaming cookie as well. Neither of these scenarios are ideal. In application code, it would be simple to set the cookie only after the user has been authenticated by the app’s internal mechanism first. But we’re not working with application code; we’re rewriting URLs in the server. Thus, this becomes a different security concern: controlling access to the approved IPs, which could be both a physical (who can patch directly in via Ethernet) and a logical issue (who can access the wireless LAN). One thing I’ve done to get around this problem is to require the browser to be authorized for roaming access to first navigate to a very large (~50 characters), randomly-generated alphanumeric subdirectory alias (generated using the same command-line script mentioned above) that is highly improbably that some might guess. This alias can only be accessed within a single authorized IP address that I directly control. It is only then that the cookie set. This eliminates the unintentional cookie setting by casual browsing of the site from other machines behind the approved IP.
  • The regular expression to match the cookie should probably be more precise. For example, the expression as stated above could also match the string “myadmincookie=uniquevalnum2”, which technically isn’t what we want. Since we’re only dealing with cookies that should be set by our domain, it may not be that big of a deal, but it’s still a vulnerability nonetheless. If nothing else, there’s always the potential of colliding with cookies sent by other applications running on your site, so picking a unique cookie name and value is important. The %{HTTP_COOKIE} variable gets all the cookies for a given site/path as one big string, with each name/value pair delimited by a semi-colon and a space (“; “) and the name and value are glued together with an equal sign. I’m looking into a better regex to match this more precisely and I’ll update this post if I find one. I’ve updated the regex so it should match the cookie name/value pair more exactly.
  • Of course, none of this by itself can completely secure a site. In addition to this scheme, I force SSL on certain paths, deny access for all users to other paths that should never be accessed directly, and even explicitly block certain IP ranges that have attempted to hack the site. It’s not fool proof by any means, but combined with many other secure practices and mechanisms, it adds one more layer of protection, and sometimes one added layer can make all the difference.

I welcome any feedback on how to improve this, especially if anyone knows how to get around the secure and unique cookie caveats.

Appendium: I should also point out that this scheme should be equally usable if you place the code in your master Apache configuration file (usually something like /etc/httpd/conf/httpd.conf on UNIX clones) or in per-directory .htaccess files. I usually prefer to put such rules in the master config file, mostly because it’s more secure (outside of the document root) and only gets parsed and loaded once while .htaccess files are read and parsed each time there’s a request in that directory (or any of its subdirectories). However, that only works if you have access to the master config, which most shared hosting services don’t provide. Of course, such rules placed in an .htaccess file will only apply to that directory and its subdirectories, so you’d have to tweak the rules (such as file paths and the cookie path) as necessary.

Update 11/20/2007: Updated cookie regex to better match the exactly name/value pair; added notes about rotating cookie values.

Update 11/30/2007: Put cookie regex in quotes to correct avoid “bad flag delimiters” parsing errors; added advantage summary to better showcase the advantages of the scheme; updated my cookie value scheme; added highly-random subdirectory alias to avoid unintentional cookie-ing

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