Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF)A. Barth
Request for Comments: 6265U.C. Berkeley
Obsoletes: 2965April 2011
Category: Standards Track
ISSN: 2070-1721

HTTP State Management Mechanism

Abstract

This document defines the HTTP Cookie and Set-Cookie header fields. These header fields can be used by HTTP servers to store state (called cookies) at HTTP user agents, letting the servers maintain a stateful session over the mostly stateless HTTP protocol. Although cookies have many historical infelicities that degrade their security and privacy, the Cookie and Set-Cookie header fields are widely used on the Internet. This document obsoletes RFC 2965.

Status of This Memo

This is an Internet Standards Track document.

This document is a product of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). It represents the consensus of the IETF community. It has received public review and has been approved for publication by the Internet Engineering Steering Group (IESG). Further information on Internet Standards is available in Section 2 of RFC 5741.

Information about the current status of this document, any errata, and how to provide feedback on it may be obtained at http://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc6265.

Copyright Notice

Copyright © 2011 IETF Trust and the persons identified as the document authors. All rights reserved.

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This document may contain material from IETF Documents or IETF Contributions published or made publicly available before November 10, 2008. The person(s) controlling the copyright in some of this material may not have granted the IETF Trust the right to allow modifications of such material outside the IETF Standards Process. Without obtaining an adequate license from the person(s) controlling the copyright in such materials, this document may not be modified outside the IETF Standards Process, and derivative works of it may not be created outside the IETF Standards Process, except to format it for publication as an RFC or to translate it into languages other than English.


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

This document defines the HTTP Cookie and Set-Cookie header fields. Using the Set-Cookie header field, an HTTP server can pass name/value pairs and associated metadata (called cookies) to a user agent. When the user agent makes subsequent requests to the server, the user agent uses the metadata and other information to determine whether to return the name/value pairs in the Cookie header.

Although simple on their surface, cookies have a number of complexities. For example, the server indicates a scope for each cookie when sending it to the user agent. The scope indicates the maximum amount of time in which the user agent should return the cookie, the servers to which the user agent should return the cookie, and the URI schemes for which the cookie is applicable.

For historical reasons, cookies contain a number of security and privacy infelicities. For example, a server can indicate that a given cookie is intended for "secure" connections, but the Secure attribute does not provide integrity in the presence of an active network attacker. Similarly, cookies for a given host are shared across all the ports on that host, even though the usual "same-origin policy" used by web browsers isolates content retrieved via different ports.

There are two audiences for this specification: developers of cookie-generating servers and developers of cookie-consuming user agents.

To maximize interoperability with user agents, servers SHOULD limit themselves to the well-behaved profile defined in Section 4 when generating cookies.

User agents MUST implement the more liberal processing rules defined in Section 5, in order to maximize interoperability with existing servers that do not conform to the well-behaved profile defined in Section 4.

This document specifies the syntax and semantics of these headers as they are actually used on the Internet. In particular, this document does not create new syntax or semantics beyond those in use today. The recommendations for cookie generation provided in Section 4 represent a preferred subset of current server behavior, and even the more liberal cookie processing algorithm provided in Section 5 does not recommend all of the syntactic and semantic variations in use today. Where some existing software differs from the recommended protocol in significant ways, the document contains a note explaining the difference.

Prior to this document, there were at least three descriptions of cookies: the so-called "Netscape cookie specification" [Netscape], RFC 2109 [RFC2109], and RFC 2965 [RFC2965]. However, none of these documents describe how the Cookie and Set-Cookie headers are actually used on the Internet (see [Kri2001] for historical context). In relation to previous IETF specifications of HTTP state management mechanisms, this document requests the following actions:

  1. Change the status of [RFC2109] to Historic (it has already been obsoleted by [RFC2965]).
  2. Change the status of [RFC2965] to Historic.
  3. Indicate that [RFC2965] has been obsoleted by this document.

In particular, in moving RFC 2965 to Historic and obsoleting it, this document deprecates the use of the Cookie2 and Set-Cookie2 header fields.

2. Conventions

2.1 Conformance Criteria

The key words "MUST", "MUST NOT", "REQUIRED", "SHALL", "SHALL NOT", "SHOULD", "SHOULD NOT", "RECOMMENDED", "MAY", and "OPTIONAL" in this document are to be interpreted as described in [RFC2119].

Requirements phrased in the imperative as part of algorithms (such as "strip any leading space characters" or "return false and abort these steps") are to be interpreted with the meaning of the key word ("MUST", "SHOULD", "MAY", etc.) used in introducing the algorithm.

Conformance requirements phrased as algorithms or specific steps can be implemented in any manner, so long as the end result is equivalent. In particular, the algorithms defined in this specification are intended to be easy to understand and are not intended to be performant.

2.2 Syntax Notation

This specification uses the Augmented Backus-Naur Form (ABNF) notation of [RFC5234].

The following core rules are included by reference, as defined in [RFC5234], Appendix B.1: ALPHA (letters), CR (carriage return), CRLF (CR LF), CTLs (controls), DIGIT (decimal 0-9), DQUOTE (double quote), HEXDIG (hexadecimal 0-9/A-F/a-f), LF (line feed), NUL (null octet), OCTET (any 8-bit sequence of data except NUL), SP (space), HTAB (horizontal tab), CHAR (any [USASCII] character), VCHAR (any visible [USASCII] character), and WSP (whitespace).

The OWS (optional whitespace) rule is used where zero or more linear whitespace characters MAY appear:

OWS            = *( [ obs-fold ] WSP )
                 ; "optional" whitespace
obs-fold       = CRLF
          

OWS SHOULD either not be produced or be produced as a single SP character.

2.3 Terminology

The terms user agent, client, server, proxy, and origin server have the same meaning as in the HTTP/1.1 specification ([RFC2616], Section 1.3).

The request-host is the name of the host, as known by the user agent, to which the user agent is sending an HTTP request or from which it is receiving an HTTP response (i.e., the name of the host to which it sent the corresponding HTTP request).

The term request-uri is defined in Section 5.1.2 of [RFC2616].

Two sequences of octets are said to case-insensitively match each other if and only if they are equivalent under the i;ascii-casemap collation defined in [RFC4790].

The term string means a sequence of non-NUL octets.

3. Overview

This section outlines a way for an origin server to send state information to a user agent and for the user agent to return the state information to the origin server.

To store state, the origin server includes a Set-Cookie header in an HTTP response. In subsequent requests, the user agent returns a Cookie request header to the origin server. The Cookie header contains cookies the user agent received in previous Set-Cookie headers. The origin server is free to ignore the Cookie header or use its contents for an application-defined purpose.

Origin servers MAY send a Set-Cookie response header with any response. User agents MAY ignore Set-Cookie headers contained in responses with 100-level status codes but MUST process Set-Cookie headers contained in other responses (including responses with 400- and 500-level status codes). An origin server can include multiple Set-Cookie header fields in a single response. The presence of a Cookie or a Set-Cookie header field does not preclude HTTP caches from storing and reusing a response.

Origin servers SHOULD NOT fold multiple Set-Cookie header fields into a single header field. The usual mechanism for folding HTTP headers fields (i.e., as defined in [RFC2616]) might change the semantics of the Set-Cookie header field because the %x2C (",") character is used by Set-Cookie in a way that conflicts with such folding.

3.1 Examples

Using the Set-Cookie header, a server can send the user agent a short string in an HTTP response that the user agent will return in future HTTP requests that are within the scope of the cookie. For example, the server can send the user agent a "session identifier" named SID with the value 31d4d96e407aad42. The user agent then returns the session identifier in subsequent requests.

== Server -> User Agent ==

Set-Cookie: SID=31d4d96e407aad42
          

== User Agent -> Server ==

Cookie: SID=31d4d96e407aad42
          

The server can alter the default scope of the cookie using the Path and Domain attributes. For example, the server can instruct the user agent to return the cookie to every path and every subdomain of example.com.

== Server -> User Agent ==

Set-Cookie: SID=31d4d96e407aad42; Path=/; Domain=example.com
          

== User Agent -> Server ==

Cookie: SID=31d4d96e407aad42
          

As shown in the next example, the server can store multiple cookies at the user agent. For example, the server can store a session identifier as well as the user's preferred language by returning two Set-Cookie header fields. Notice that the server uses the Secure and HttpOnly attributes to provide additional security protections for the more sensitive session identifier (see Section 4.1.2.)

== Server -> User Agent ==

Set-Cookie: SID=31d4d96e407aad42; Path=/; Secure; HttpOnly
Set-Cookie: lang=en-US; Path=/; Domain=example.com
          

== User Agent -> Server ==

Cookie: SID=31d4d96e407aad42; lang=en-US
          

Notice that the Cookie header above contains two cookies, one named SID and one named lang. If the server wishes the user agent to persist the cookie over multiple "sessions" (e.g., user agent restarts), the server can specify an expiration date in the Expires attribute. Note that the user agent might delete the cookie before the expiration date if the user agent's cookie store exceeds its quota or if the user manually deletes the server's cookie.

== Server -> User Agent ==

Set-Cookie: lang=en-US; Expires=Wed, 09 Jun 2021 10:18:14 GMT
          

== User Agent -> Server ==

Cookie: SID=31d4d96e407aad42; lang=en-US
          

Finally, to remove a cookie, the server returns a Set-Cookie header with an expiration date in the past. The server will be successful in removing the cookie only if the Path and the Domain attribute in the Set-Cookie header match the values used when the cookie was created.

== Server -> User Agent ==

Set-Cookie: lang=; Expires=Sun, 06 Nov 1994 08:49:37 GMT
          

== User Agent -> Server ==

Cookie: SID=31d4d96e407aad42
          

4. Server Requirements

This section describes the syntax and semantics of a well-behaved profile of the Cookie and Set-Cookie headers.