Preventing Browser Caching using HTTP Headers

Many developers consider the use of HTTPS on a site enough security for a user’s data, however one area often overlooked is the caching of your sites pages by the users browser. By default (for performance) browsers will cache pages visited regardless of whether they are served via HTTP or HTTPS. This behaviour is not ideal for security as it allows an attacker to use the locally stored browser history and browser cache to read possibly sensitive data entered by a user during their web session. The attacker would need access to the users physical machine (either locally in the case of a shared device or remotely via remote access or malware). To avoid this scenario for your site you should consider informing the browser not to cache sensitive pages via the header values in your HTTP response. Unfortunately it’s not quite that easy as different browsers implement different policies and treat the various cache control values in HTTP headers differently.

Taking control of caching via the use of HTTP headers

To control how the browser (and any intermediate server) caches the pages within our web application we need to change the HTTP headers to explicitly prevent caching. The minimum recommended HTTP headers to de-activate caching are:

Cache-control: no-store
Pragma: no-cache

Below are the settings seen on many secure sites as a comparison to above and perhaps as a guide to what we should really be aiming for:

Cache-Control:max-age=0, no-cache, no-store, must-revalidate
Expires:Thu, 01 Jan 1970 00:00:00 GMT
Pragma:no-cache

HTTP Headers & Browser Implementation Differences:

Different web browsers implement caching in differing ways and therefore also implement various subtleties in their support for the cache controlling HTTP headers. This also means that as browsers evolve so too will their implementations related to these header values.

Pragma Header Setting

Use of the ‘Pragma’ setting is often used but it is now outdated (a retained setting from HTTP 1.0) and actually relates to requests and not responses. As developers have been ‘over using’ this on responses many browsers actually started to make use of this setting to control response caching. This is why it is best included even though it has been superseded by specific HTTP 1.1 directives.

Cache-Control ‘No-Store’ & ‘No-Cache’ Header Settings

A “Cache-Control” setting of private instructs any proxies not to cache the page but it does still permit the browser to cache. Changing this to no-store instructs the browser to not cache the page and not store it in a local cache. This is the most secure setting. Again due to variances in implementation a setting of no-cache is also sometimes used to mean no-store (despite this setting actually meaning cache but always re-validate, see here). Due to this the common recommendation is to include both settings, i.e: Cache-control: no-store, no-cache.

Expires Header Setting

This again is an old HTTP 1.0 setting that is maintained for backward compatibility. Setting this date to a date in the past forces the browser to treat the data as stale and therefore it will not be loaded from cache but re-queried from the originating server. The data is still cached locally on disk though and so only provides little security benefits but does prevent an attacker directly using the browser back button to read the data without resorting to accessing the cache on the file system.  For example:  Expires: Thu, 01 Jan 1970 00:00:00 GMT

Max-Age Header Setting

The HTTP 1.1 equivalent of expires header. Setting to 0 will force the browser to re-validate with the originating server before displaying the page from cache. For example: Cache-control: max-age=0

Must-Revalidate Header Setting

This instructs the browser that it must revalidate the page against the originating server before loading from the cache, i.e. Cache-Control: must-revalidate

Implementing the HTTP Header Options

Which pages will be affected?

Technically you only need to turn off caching on those pages where sensitive data is being collected or displayed. This needs to be balanced against the risk of accidently not implementing the change on new pages in the future or making it possible to remove this change accidently on individual pages. A review of your web application might show that the majority of pages display sensitive data and therefore a global setting would be beneficial. A global setting would also ensure that any new future pages added to the application would automatically be covered by this change, reducing the impact of developers forgetting to set the values.

There is a trade off with performance here and this must be considered in your approach. As this change impacts the client caching mechanics of the site there will be performance implications of this change. Pages will no longer be cached on the client, impacting client response times and may also increase load on the servers. A full performance test is required following any change in this area.

Implementing in ASP.net

There are numerous options for implementing the HTTP headers into a web application. These options are outlined below with their strengths/weaknesses. ASP.net and the .Net framework provide methods to set caching controls on the Request and Cache objects. These in turn result in HTTP headers being set for the page/application’s HTTP responses. This provides a level of abstraction from the HTTP headers but that abstraction prevents you setting the headers exactly how you might like them for full browser compatibility. The alternative approach is to explicitly set the HTTP headers. Both options and how they can be implemented are explored below:

Using ASP.net Intrinsic Cache Settings
Declaratively Set Output Cache per ASPX Page

Using the ASPX Page object’s attributes you can declaratively set the output cache properties for the page including the HTTP header values regarding caching. The syntax is show in the example below:

Example ASPX page:

<%@ Page Language="C#" AutoEventWireup="true" CodeBehind="Default.aspx.cs" Inherits="CacheTestApp._Default" %> 
<%@ OutputCache Duration="60" VaryByParam="None"%> 
<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Transitional//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-transitional.dtd"> 
<html xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml" > 
<head runat="server"> 
<title></title> 
</head> 
<body> 
<form id="form1" runat="server"> This is Page 1.</form> 
</body> 
</html>

Parameters can be added to the OutputCache settings via the various supported attributes. Whilst this configuration allows specific targeting of the caching solution by enabling you to define a cache setting for each separate page it has the drawback that it needs changes to be made to all pages and all user controls. In addition developers of any new pages will need to ensure that the page’s cache settings are correctly configured. Lastly this solution is not configurable should the setting need to be changed per environment or disabled for performance reasons.

Declaratively Set Output Cache Using a Global Output Cache Profile

An alternative declarative solution for configuring a page’s cache settings is to use a Cache Profile. This works by again adding an OutputCache directive to each page (and user control) but this time deferring the configuration settings to a CacheProfile in the web.config file.

Example ASPX page:

<%@ Page Language="C#" AutoEventWireup="true" CodeBehind="Default.aspx.cs" Inherits="CacheTestApp._Default" %> 
<%@ OutputCache CacheProfile=" RHCacheProfile "%> 
<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Transitional//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-transitional.dtd"> 
<html xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml" > 
<head runat="server"> 
<title></title> 
</head> 
<body> 
<form id="form1" runat="server"> 
This is Page 1. 
</form> 
</body> 
</html>

Web.config file:

<system.web> 
<caching> 
<outputCache enableOutputCache="false"/> 
<outputCacheSettings> 
<outputCacheProfiles> 
<OutputCache CacheProfile=" RHCacheProfile"> 
<add name="RHCacheProfile" 
location="None" 
noStore="true"/> 
</outputCacheProfiles> 
</outputCacheSettings> 
</caching> 
</system.web>

This option provides the specific targeting per page and the related drawbacks of having to make changes to every page and user control. This solution does provide the ability to centralise the cache settings in one place (minimising the impact of future changes) and enables caching to be set during installation depending on target environment via the deployment process.

Programmatically Set HTTP Headers in ASPX Pages

Output caching can also be set in code in the code behind page (or indeed anywhere where the response object can be manipulated). The code snippet below shows setting the HTTP headers indirectly via the Response.Cache object:

Response.Cache.SetCacheability(HttpCacheability.NoCache); 
Response.Cache.SetExpires(DateTime.UtcNow.AddHours(-1)); 
Response.Cache.SetNoStore();
Response.Cache.SetMaxAge(new TimeSpan(0,0,30));

This code would need to be added to each page and so results in duplicate code to maintain and again introduces the requirement for this to be remembered to be added to all new pages as they are developed. It results in the below headers being produced:

Cache-Control:no-cache, no-store

Expires:-1

Pragma:no-cache

Programmatically Set HTTP Headers in Global ASAX File

Instead of adding the above code in each page an alternative approach is to add it to the Global ASAX file so as to apply to all requests made through the application.

void Application_BeginRequest(object sender, EventArgs e)
{
	Response.Cache.SetCacheability(HttpCacheability.NoCache);
	Response.Cache.SetExpires(DateTime.Now);
	Response.Cache.SetNoStore();
	Response.Cache.SetMaxAge(new TimeSpan(0,0,30));
}

This would apply to all pages being requested through the application. It results in the below headers being produced:

Cache-Control:no-cache, no-store

Expires:-1

Pragma:no-cache

Explicitly define HTTP Headers outside of ASP.net Cache settings.

Explicitly Define HTTP Headers in ASPX Pages

The response object can have its HTTP Headers set explicitly instead of using the ASP.net Cache objects abstraction layer. This involves setting the header on every page:

void Page_Load(object sender, EventArgs e)
{
	Response.AddHeader("Cache-Control", "max-age=0,no-cache,no-store,must-revalidate");
	Response.AddHeader("Pragma", "no-cache");
	Response.AddHeader("Expires", "Tue, 01 Jan 1970 00:00:00 GMT");
}

Again as a page specific approach it requires a change to be made on each page. It results in the below headers being produced:

Cache-Control:max-age=0,no-cache,no-store,must-revalidate

Expires:Tue, 01 Jan 1970 00:00:00 GMT

Pragma:no-cache

Explicitly Define HTTP Headers in Global ASAX File

To avoid having to set the header explicitly on each page the above code can be inserted into the Application_BeginRequest event within the application’s Global ASAX file:

void Application_BeginRequest(object sender, EventArgs e)
{
	Response.AddHeader("Cache-Control", "max-age=0,no-cache,no-store,must-revalidate");
	Response.AddHeader("Pragma", "no-cache");
	Response.AddHeader("Expires", "Tue, 01 Jan 1970 00:00:00 GMT");
}

Again this results in the below headers being produced:

Cache-Control:max-age=0,no-cache,no-store,must-revalidate

Expires:Tue, 01 Jan 1970 00:00:00 GMT

Pragma:no-cache

Environment Specific Settings

It’s useful to be able to set the header values via configuration settings, not least to be able to test this change in a performance test environment via before/after tests.

All of the above changes should be made configurable and be able to be triggered/tweaked via the web.config file (and therefore can be modified via deployment settings).

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