Web Security for Frontend and Backend

The web is everywhere and we use it for tons of important tasks like online banking, shopping and communication. So it becomes increasingly important to implement proper security. As attacks like cross-site scripting (XSS) or cross-site request forgery (CSRF) are wide-spread browsers, web standards designers and web application developers implement more and more mechanisms to make such attacks harder or even impossible. This puts a certain burden on both frontend and backend developers.

Since security is hard and should not be an afterthought I would like to give you some advice when implementing a web app using a Javascript-frontend and a backend service written in some of the common languages/frameworks like .NET, Micronaut, Javalin, Flask or the like.

Frontend advice

I prefer traditional cookie-based sessions to JWT-based approaches for interactive web frontends because of simplicity, browser support and the possibility to use it without Javascript. For service-to-service communication bearer tokens of some kind may be more appropriate. Your Javascript client has to include the credentials in the fetch() calls to cause the browser to send the cookie.

Unfortunately, incorrect use of cookies may be insecure, so be sure to check up-to-date advice on cookies; see some hints below in the backend part because cookies are configured and issued there.

Backend advice

Modern web security requires additional measures on the server side to ensure secure authentication and communication with web clients. You should use https whereever possible to gain at least transport security and avoid many cases of sniffing credentials or changing content between client and backend.

Improving security of cookies

First of all, cookies should be HttpOnly so that scripts cannot access the contents of a cookie. Furthermore you should ideally set the SameSite and Secure attributes appropriately and use https whenever possible. That way you have mitigated the most common attacks on your session handling and authentication.

Another bonus for cookies is that browsers can inform you about problems with your cookie setup:

Configuring Cross-Origin Resource Sharing (CORS)

Nowadays it is common for web app to be served from a different host than the backend API. This is a potential problem because attackers may sneak scripts into the browser of a user and use the existing session to access the resources in an illegal way. Therefore another means of improving security of web apps running in browsers was introduced with the access control using CORS.

For browsers to be able to prevent or allow requests to certain resources the backend has to provide appropriate Access-Control-headers, most notably Access-Control-Allow-Origin and Access-Control-Allow-Credentials. Make sure to set these values correctly or your frontend will have trouble to access your backend or you introduce a potential security whole.

Fortunately many web frameworks make it easy to configure CORS, see Micronaut documentation for example.

Conclusion

Security is always important and browser vendors keep implementing additional measures to mitigate problems in the current web environment. Make sure you keep up with the latest advice and measures and implement them in your applications.