HTTP Basic and Digest authentication with PHP

HTTP authentication is quite popular for web applications. It is pretty easy to implement and works for a range of http applications; not to mention your browser.

Basic Auth

The two main authentication schemes are ‘basic’ and ‘digest’. Basic is pretty easy to implement and appears to be the most common:


$username = null;
$password = null;

// mod_php
if (isset($_SERVER['PHP_AUTH_USER'])) {
    $username = $_SERVER['PHP_AUTH_USER'];
    $password = $_SERVER['PHP_AUTH_PW'];

// most other servers
} elseif (isset($_SERVER['HTTP_AUTHORIZATION'])) {

        if (strpos(strtolower($_SERVER['HTTP_AUTHORIZATION']),'basic')===0)
          list($username,$password) = explode(':',base64_decode(substr($_SERVER['HTTP_AUTHORIZATION'], 6)));


if (is_null($username)) {

    header('WWW-Authenticate: Basic realm="My Realm"');
    header('HTTP/1.0 401 Unauthorized');
    echo 'Text to send if user hits Cancel button';


} else {
    echo "<p>Hello {$username}.</p>";
    echo "<p>You entered {$password} as your password.</p>";


Well it’s a bit difficult I suppose, but you might have noticed the username and password are sent over the wire using base64 encoding. Not really secure, unless you have SSL in place.


Digest is designed to be more secure. The password is never sent over the wire in plain text, but rather as a hash. The implications of the usage of a hash is that it can never be decrypted. We can only validate the hash by applying the same hash function to the password we have. If the hashes match, the password was correct.

Lets first see how Digest auth should work:

Client requests url

GET / HTTP/1.1

Server requires authentication

HTTP/1.1 401 Unauthorized
WWW-Authenticate: Digest realm="The batcave",

Client authenticates

GET / HTTP/1.1
Authorization: Digest username="admin",
  realm="The batcave",
  qop=auth, nc=00000001,

Information coming from the server:

realmA string which will be used within the UI and as part of the hash.
qopCan be auth and auth-int and has influence on how the hash is created. We use auth.
nonceA unique code, which will be used within the hash and needs to be sent back by the client.
opaqueThis can be treated as a session id. If this changes the browser will deauthenticate the user.

Information from the client:


So how do we know if the password was correct? We van validate using the following formula (pseudo code).

```php A1 = md5(username:realm:password) A2 = md5(request-method:uri) // request method = GET, POST, etc. Hash = md5(A1:nonce:nc:cnonce:qop:A2) if (Hash == response) //success! else //failure! ```

Or, using PHP:

```php 1, 'nc'=>1, 'cnonce'=>1, 'qop'=>1, 'username'=>1, 'uri'=>1, 'response'=>1); $data = array(); preg_match_all('@(\w+)=(?:(?:")([^"]+)"|([^\s,$]+))@', $digest, $matches, PREG_SET_ORDER); foreach ($matches as $m) { $data[$m[1]] = $m[2] ? $m[2] : $m[3]; unset($needed_parts[$m[1]]); } return $needed_parts ? false : $data; } ?> ```

As you can see we need to have a plain-text version of the password in order to validate the user. It's not a good idea to store the plain-text password, therefore it's strongly recommended to store the result of $A1 instead.

Security improvements

  • It's smart to validate the contents of opaque, nonce and realm. If you have the data stored on the server, why not check it.
  • The nc should be an ever increasing number. You could store the number and track to make sure it doesn't make any big jumps. It's not wanted to be extremely strict about the sequence, because you might miss a number, and requests could come in be out of order.
  • 'qop' is quality of protection. This serves as an integrity code for the request. A hacker could steal all your HTTP Digest headers and simply change the body to make it do something else. If 'qop' is set to 'auth', only the requested uri will be taken into consideration. If 'qop' is 'auth-int' the body of the request will also be used in the hash. (A2 = md5(request-method:uri:md5(request-body))).


usernameThe supplied username
realmSame as server response.</tr>
nonceSame as server response.</tr>
uriThe authentication uri
responseThe validation hash.
opaqueSame as server response.
qopSame as server response.
ncNonce-count. This a hexadecimal serial number for the request. The client should increase this number by one for every request.
cnonceA unique id generated by the client