Login Session Maintenance in Node.js using Express and Handlebars

This is part 3 of a series of posts describing a proof-of-concept web app that implements cryptographic authentication using Node.js with a MongoDB back-end. Part 1 described the login process. Part 2 described the registration process. This Part 3 is concerned with login session maintenance in a broader scope than cryptographic authentication. Part 4, concerned with random bit generation, is now available. The proof-of-concept app, called app-mongodb.js, can be found in a zip file downloadable from the cryptographic authentication page.

Update. The name of the constant securityStrength has been changed to rbgSecurityStrength as noted in the last post of the series and reflected in one of the snippets below.

At first glance it may seem that there is no need for login session maintenance in a web app that implements cryptographic authentication with a key pair. Every HTTP request can be authenticated on its own without linking it to a session, by sending the public key to the back-end and proving possession of the private key, as in the login process described in Part 1. That login process relied on the user supplying the username in order to locate the user record, but this is not essential, since the user record could be located in the database by searching for the public key, which is unique with overwhelming probability.

But login sessions provide important login/logout functionality, allowing the user to choose whether to authenticate or not. A member of a site accessible to both members and non-members, for example, may choose to visit the site without authenticating in order to see what information is made available by the site to non-members. Also, the proof of possession of the private key has a latency cost for the user due to the need to retrieve the challenge from the server, and a computational cost for the server and the browser. These costs are insignificant if incurred once per session, but may not be insignificant if incurred for every HTTP request.

The app discussed in this series, app-mongodb.js, implements login sessions in the traditional way using session cookies. Having said that I could stop here. But the Express framework used in the app provides interesting ways of implementing traditional login sessions, which are worth discussing.

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