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Security Advisory: Tor Browser Leaks "Secure Cookies" Into Insecure Backend Channels

  • v1.3 - 23 January 2024, - minor updates due to the Onionspray fork
  • v1.2 - 27 July 2020, - update links to gitlab bugs
  • v1.1 - 27 July 2020, - grammar fixes, typos and linkifies
  • v1.0 - 27 July 2020, - initial

The master copy of this document resides here.


All users and operators of .onion websites, especially (but not limited to) sites containing "mixed content" HTTPS and HTTP.


Tor Browser leaks "secure" cookies that were issued over HTTPS into cleartext HTTP channels that may be observable by third parties in backend deployments.

This risk is not visible to the end-user.

How to determine if you are impacted

Site users

Contact your site operators to ask if they are impacted.

Site owners: Onion Services

Check all instances of tor.conf on your deployed systems; if there is a configuration line for port 80 that looks like one of the following:

HiddenServicePort 80 <ipaddress>
HiddenServicePort 80 <ipaddress>:<portnum>
HiddenServicePort 80 <hostname>
HiddenServicePort 80 <hostname>:<portnum>

Then you are at-risk, unless one of the following holds:

  1. The value of <ipaddress> is or some other locally-bound IP address for the server that is running the tor daemon
  2. The <hostname> is localhost.

You are most likely to be at risk if hosting your environment in a "cloud" or "cloud-like" infrastructure, but you should also consider the following issues whether or not you use cloud hosting for your onion site.

Site owners: reverse proxies and load balancers

You are also at risk if you operate a reverse proxy (e.g. Onionspray or EOTK) or a layer-7 load balancer that receives port 80 HTTP traffic from Tor via any means (e.g. a Unix domain socket) which is then passed onwards to the upstream website without modification and/or without putting in place some additional Tor Browser-specific security infrastructure.


Why we are seeing this behaviour

Tor Browser, almost uniquely amongst web browsers, implements "onion networking" as an alternative layer-3 transport similar to TCP/IP; onion networking provides secure communications to a cryptographic network address, in a manner similar to a layer-3 VPN or an IPsec-protected TCP/IP connection.

In recent software changes that were made to address a series of feature requests:

... Tor Browser developers made the novel architectural decision that HTTPS and Plain HTTP Over Onion should be treated as the same thing and should share the same "first party isolation" properties, without apparent regard to how an onion-site's backend implementation might be shaped.

This means that "Secure" cookies which were issued to the client over a HTTPS channel, will by default be sent back to the same server via both HTTPS-over-Onion (safe) and also via HTTP-over-Onion (novel, unexpected, potentially risky).

Consequences of this behaviour

The web relies upon "cookies" as small pieces of data that enable websites to carry some form of "state" - for instance that an incoming request belongs to a user who has previously authenticated.

For purposes of security, certain cookies (usually: authentication- or identity-related) may be marked as "Secure" to prevent them being sent over insecure plaintext HTTP channels. Although (by a quirk) they may be legitimately sent over any channel, the "Secure" tag requires that the cookies are only ever returned from the client to the server over HTTPS.

This behaviour is considered one of the fundamentals of web architecture, such that many server deployments reasonably do not bother to protect or filter legacy plaintext HTTP connections within their backend infrastructure because no data of any consequence will ever be sent to them by any browser.

Unfortunately with this change, Tor Browser has moved from being one which implements simply a superset of layer-3 connectivity, to one which instead has "special needs" for deployment because it treats plaintext HTTP as a secure channel on par with HTTPS - and does not match the above assumptions upon which most websites are built.

http cleartext links over onion

Image: the blue onion circuit protects HTTP traffic only up to the point where the circuit terminates; with this change Tor Browser now leaks "Secure" cookies across the orange link, in a novel way that other browsers would not do, and which software and administrators would not typically expect.

If for instance a HTTPS-enabled website foo.onion issues a "Secure" session cookie for the whole foo.onion domain, it typically will not expect the client to return that cookie to a third-party CDN which is hosted on plaintext HTTP at - e.g. one that is accessed via a reverse-proxy load-balancer virtual IP address set up to handle traffic that arrives over port 80 of the foo.onion onion circuit. Such a reverse proxy might forward such data to Cloudfront, Fastly or Cloudflare, for handling.

However: with this change Tor Browser in specific will leak session cookies to those third-party CDN sites, which will traverse the foo.onion virtual private cloud, if not the whole internet, in cleartext where the cookies may be logged and captured by state surveillance agencies if no other. This problem should be familiar to people who have seen the "SSL added and removed here" slides from the Snowden files. No other properly configured browser would behave this way.

Alternatives to this behaviour

The goal of this change was apparently to enable sites to be adapted to issue secure cookies for the purposes of enabling login. Tor excuse this behaviour as being "standards-compatible" and cite section 3.2 as explicitly permitting a user agent to define a secure context as it sees fit.

Tor further have framed the backend impact as a "communications" issue, that any surprise and impact of this change should primarily have been addressed through education of site administrators with resulting software changes.

The author would argue that the less surprising way to achieve this goal would be to bring zero-cost HTTPS to Onion Networking - e.g. via LetsEncrypt, or by canonisation of special, self-signed certificates - rather than to attempt to revive HTTP as a protocol by making it an equivalent partner to HTTPS because of an initial layer-3 transport step.

Tor counter this argument on the basis that HTTPS-over-Onion is less efficient and more verbose - in the nature of superencryption - than to assume that the termination of the layer-3 onion connection is secure with respect to onward plaintext HTTP access.

Context: mitigations proposed by Tor

The author has discussed the matter at length with Tor, who have apparently committed to the behaviour as an enabler for brand-new ".onion" websites irrespective of impact upon current deployments or future software assumptions.

Tor has proposed that the actual problem at hand is that implementers need to provide a "secure backhaul" between their tor daemon and the webservers which implement their port 80 services. In practice this would presumably mean either of:

  • Implementing layer-3 IPsec or VPN communications between the tor-daemon server and the HTTP servers that provide port 80 content, in order to protect unnecessary data that Tor Browser in particular may choose to send to them; or...
  • Implementing uplift of port 80 communications to HTTPS - assuming that it is feasible and possible to do this - again purely in order to protect unnecessary data that Tor Browser in particular may choose to push down a port 80 connection.

A version of the latter mitigation is already implemented as an option by Onionspray and EOTK (below) but it breaks some websites that get caught in infinite redirect loops, which may be uneconomic for the site operators to fix.

Web Browsers: potential technical mitigations

An interested third party proposed a potential mitigation, that first-party isolation be further modified to become "scheme-and-transport aware", so that:

  • Cookies issued over HTTPS-over-Onion.
  • Cookies issued over HTTPS.
  • Cookies issued over HTTP-over-Onion.
  • Cookies issued over HTTP.

... for a given site would all be considered "distinct" and only be returned to servers whose URLs operated at-or-above the same "security level", so to speak.

This proposal is currently hanging, and is not (apparently) being further discussed. This proposal would be orthogonal with existing web practice, but not as easily as "enabling HTTPS for Onion sites" would, because it would still require modification to tell deployed software stacks "don't worry, it's okay that you're not configured with a HTTPS URL for special reasons that you probably weren't written to understand."

Practical mitigations: Onionspray and EOTK operators

If you are using Onionspray or EOTK, you should update your software and configuration, and in particular you should set:

set force_https 1

... which is the default value for that setting. If you have manually set force_https to 0 then you should revert that change, rebuild your configuration, and test your site. Some parts of your site may break. If you need to re-disable forced-HTTPS, then you should consider the potential risk of content interception before doing so. If necessary, contact the author to discuss.

Practical mitigations: other onionsite operators

Operators of other large onion sites should consider their deployment, and whether a systemic risk is presented by virtue of Tor Browser sending authentication, session, and other "Secure" cookies as part of requests to fetch resources over HTTP via the Onion circuit.

This consideration should include the nature of your deployment, the nature of your (e.g. shared-hosting cloud) infrastructure, and the potential risks to users of exposure of such "Secure" cookie content to untrusted or third parties.

If this risk is considered excessive, you may wish to consider disabling port 80 services on your Tor daemon, or possibly send port 80 requests to a custom-built HTTP server within your security perimeter, for special processing such as customised cookie-stripping. Or - to be frank - you may wish to consider disabling your onion site if the risks are excessive and the costs to mitigate are too great.


Does this mean that the "Onion Web" is broken?

No. This issue is purely a function of Tor Browser and how it chooses to behave and manage cookies for websites which it accesses over HTTP and Onion Networking. There are no impacts upon other browsers nor upon fundamental layer-3 onion networking for (say) SSH-over-Onion.

Does this impact mobile?

The author does not yet know whether this change impacts either of "Tor Browser" for Android or "OnionBrowser" for iOS.

"Is this a NSA Backdoor", etc?

The author does not believe that this is wittingly any form of backdoor, but rather appears to be driven out of a motivation to increase adoption of Onion Services. Unfortunately the path currently chosen towards this goal includes reviving HTTP as a protocol, requiring differing assumption of data protection than the rest of the web, and it puts at risk of interception data that was formerly not at risk.