Wandering Thoughts archives

2020-03-09

Logging out of HTTP Basic Authentication in Firefox

We make significant use of HTTP Basic Authentication in our local web servers, because if you use Apache it's a nice simple way of putting arbitrary things behind password protection. It's not the most user-friendly thing these days and it's probably not what you want if you also need to handle things like user registration and password resets, but in our environment all of those are handled separately. However, it does have one little drawback, which is logging out.

Normal user web authentication schemes are pretty much all implemented with browser cookies and often a backend session database. This means that 'logging out' is a matter of removing the cookies, marking the session as logged out, or both at once. Logging you out is a straightforward and unobtrusive thing for a website to do (and it can even do so passively), and even if a website doesn't support logging out you can do it yourself by scrubbing the site's cookies (and Firefox is making it increasingly easy to do that).

There is no equivalent of this for HTTP Basic Authentication. The browser magically remembers the authentication information for as long as its running, there's no way for the website to gracefully signal to the browser that the information should be discarded, and Firefox doesn't expose any convenient controls for it to the user (Firefox doesn't even seem to consider HTTP Basic Authenticaion to be 'cookies and site data' that it will let you clear). Traditionally the only way to 'log out' from HTTP Basic Authentication was to quit out of your entire browser session, which is a bit obtrusive in these days of tons of windows, tabs, and established sessions with other websites.

Recently I learned that you can do better, although it's a bit obtrusive and not particularly user-friendly. The magic trick is that you can overwrite Firefox's remembered HTTP Basic Authentication user and password with a new, invalid pair by using a URL with embedded credentials. If you're currently authenticated to https://example.com/app, you can destroy that and effectively log out by trying to access 'https://bad:bad@example.com/app'. The drawback is that you'll get an authentication challenge popup that you have to dismiss.

(Chrome apparently no longer supports specifying credentials in URLs this way, so this trick won't work in it. Hopefully Firefox is not going to go the same way, at least not before it adds some sort of UI to let you discard HTTP Basic Authentication credentials yourself. MDN does describe this as deprecated in the MDN page on HTTP authentication, so it may be going away someday even in Firefox.)

You can definitely enter such an URL by hand (or modify the existing URL of the page in the URL bar to insert the 'bad@bad:' credentials bit) and it works. I believe that Firefox will still support links on web pages that have credentials embedded in them, so you could put a 'log out by trying to use this' link on your index page, but I haven't tested it. You'd only want to do this on websites aimed at technical users, because following such a link will provoke a HTTP Basic Authentication challenge that you have to cancel out of.

PS: You can apparently clear this information through 'Clear Recent History' by invoking that and then carefully selecting only 'Active Logins'. Since clearing any degree of history is an alarming thing for me and a mistake could be very bad (I keep my browser history forever), I'm not fond of this interface and don't expect to ever use it. People who are less attached to their browser history than I am (and so are more tolerant of slips than I am) may like it more.

FirefoxLogoutBasicAuth written at 23:35:57; Add Comment


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