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Referer and Referrer-Policy best practices

Referer and Referrer-Policy best practices

Best practices to set your Referrer-Policy and use the referrer in incoming requests.

Updated
Appears in: Safe and secure

Summary

  • Unexpected cross-origin information leakage hinders web users' privacy. A protective referrer policy can help.
  • Consider setting a referrer policy of strict-origin-when-cross-origin. It retains much of the referrer's usefulness, while mitigating the risk of leaking data cross-origins.
  • Don't use referrers for Cross-Site Request Forgery (CSRF) protection. Use CSRF tokens instead, and other headers as an extra layer of security.

Before we start:

  • If you're unsure of the difference between "site" and "origin", check out Understanding "same-site" and "same-origin".
  • The Referer header is missing an R, due to an original misspelling in the spec. The Referrer-Policy header and referrer in JavaScript and the DOM are spelled correctly.

Referer and Referrer-Policy 101

HTTP requests may include the optional Referer header, which indicates the origin or web page URL the request was made from. The Referrer-Policy header defines what data is made available in the Referer header.

In the example below, the Referer header includes the complete URL of the page on site-one from which the request was made.

HTTP request including a Referer header.

The Referer header might be present in different types of requests:

  • Navigation requests, when a user clicks a link
  • Subresource requests, when a browser requests images, iframes, scripts, and other resources that a page needs.

For navigations and iframes, this data can also be accessed via JavaScript using document.referrer.

The Referer value can be insightful. For example, an analytics service might use the value to determine that 50% of the visitors on site-two.example came from social-network.example.

But when the full URL including the path and query string is sent in the Referer across origins, this can be privacy-hindering and pose security risks as well. Take a look at these URLs:

URLs with paths, mapped to different privacy and security risks.

URLs #1 to #5 contain private information—sometimes even identifying or sensitive. Leaking these silently across origins can compromise web users' privacy.

URL #6 is a capability URL. You don't want it to fall in the hands of anyone other than the intended user. If this were to happen, a malicious actor could hijack this user's account.

In order to restrict what referrer data is made available for requests from your site, you can set a referrer policy.

What policies are available and how do they differ?

You can select one of eight policies. Depending on the policy, the data available from the Referer header (and document.referrer) can be:

  • No data (no Referer header is present)
  • Only the origin
  • The full URL: origin, path, and query string
Data that can be contained in the Referer header and document.referrer.

Some policies are designed to behave differently depending on the context: cross-origin or same-origin request, security (whether the request destination is as secure as the origin), or both. This is useful to limit the amount of information shared across origins or to less secure origins—while maintaining the richness of the referrer within your own site.

Here is an overview showing how referrer policies restrict the URL data available from the Referer header and document.referrer:

Different referrer policies and their behaviour, depending on the security and cross-origin context.

MDN provides a full list of policies and behavior examples.

Things to note:

  • All policies that take the scheme (HTTPS vs. HTTP) into account (strict-origin, no-referrer-when-downgrade and strict-origin-when-cross-origin) treat requests from an HTTP origin to another HTTP origin the same way as requests from an HTTPS origin to another HTTPS origin—even if HTTP is less secure. That's because for these policies, what matters is whether a security downgrade takes place, i.e. if the request can expose data from an encrypted origin to an unencrypted one. An HTTP → HTTP request is unencrypted all along, so there is no downgrade. HTTPS → HTTP requests, on the contrary, present a downgrade.
  • If a request is same-origin, this means that the scheme (HTTPS or HTTP) is the same; hence there is no security downgrade.

Default referrer policies in browsers

As of July 2020

If no referrer policy is set, the browser's default policy will be used.

Browser Default Referrer-Policy / Behavior
Chrome Planning to switch to strict-origin-when-cross-origin in version 85 (previously no-referrer-when-downgrade)
Firefox
  • no-referrer-when-downgrade
  • Considering strict-origin-when-cross-origin
  • strict-origin-when-cross-origin in Private Browsing and for trackers
Edge
  • no-referrer-when-downgrade
  • Experimenting with strict-origin-when-cross-origin
Safari Similar to strict-origin-when-cross-origin. See Preventing Tracking Prevention Tracking for details.

Setting your referrer policy: best practices

Objective: Explicitly set a privacy-enhancing policy, such as strict-origin-when-cross-origin(or stricter).

There are different ways to set referrer policies for your site:

You can set different policies for different pages, requests or elements.

The HTTP header and the meta element are both page-level. The precedence order when determining an element's effective policy is:

  1. Element-level policy
  2. Page-level policy
  3. Browser default

Example:

index.html:

<meta name="referrer" content="strict-origin-when-cross-origin" />
<img src="..." referrerpolicy="no-referrer-when-downgrade" />

The image will be requested with a no-referrer-when-downgrade policy, while all other subresource requests from this page will follow the strict-origin-when-cross-origin policy.

How to see the referrer policy?

securityheaders.com is handy to determine the policy a specific site or page is using.

You can also use the developer tools of Chrome, Edge, or Firefox to see the referrer policy used for a specific request. At the time of this writing, Safari doesn't show the Referrer-Policy header but does show the Referer that was sent.

A screenshot of the Network panel of Chrome DevTools, showing Referer and Referrer-Policy.
Chrome DevTools, Network panel with a request selected.

Which policy should you set for your website?

Summary: Explicitly set a privacy-enhancing policy such as strict-origin-when-cross-origin (or stricter).

Why "explicitly"?

If no referrer policy is set, the browser's default policy will be used—in fact, websites often defer to the browser's default. But this is not ideal, because:

  • Browser default policies are either no-referrer-when-downgrade, strict-origin-when-cross-origin, or stricter—depending on the browser and mode (private/incognito). So your website won't behave predictably across browsers.
  • Browsers are adopting stricter defaults such as strict-origin-when-cross-origin and mechanisms such as referrer trimming for cross-origin requests. Explicitly opting into a privacy-enhancing policy before browser defaults change gives you control and helps you run tests as you see fit.

Why strict-origin-when-cross-origin (or stricter)?

You need a policy that is secure, privacy-enhancing, and useful—what "useful" means depends on what you want from the referrer:

  • Secure: if your website uses HTTPS (if not, make it a priority), you don't want your website's URLs to leak in non-HTTPS requests. Since anyone on the network can see these, this would expose your users to person-in-the-middle-attacks. The policies no-referrer-when-downgrade, strict-origin-when-cross-origin, no-referrer and strict-origin solve this problem.
  • Privacy-enhancing: for a cross-origin request, no-referrer-when-downgrade shares the full URL—this is not privacy-enhancing. strict-origin-when-cross-origin and strict-origin only share the origin, and no-referrer shares nothing at all. This leaves you with strict-origin-when-cross-origin, strict-origin, and no-referrer as privacy-enhancing options.
  • Useful: no-referrer and strict-origin never share the full URL, even for same-origin requests—so if you need this, strict-origin-when-cross-origin is a better option.

All of this means that strict-origin-when-cross-origin is generally a sensible choice.

Example: Setting a strict-origin-when-cross-origin policy:

index.html:

<meta name="referrer" content="strict-origin-when-cross-origin" />

Or server-side, for example in Express:

const helmet = require('helmet');
app.use(helmet.referrerPolicy({policy: 'strict-origin-when-cross-origin'}));

What if strict-origin-when-cross-origin (or stricter) doesn't accommodate all your use cases?

In this case, take a progressive approach: set a protective policy like strict-origin-when-cross-origin for your website and if need be, a more permissive policy for specific requests or HTML elements.

Example: element-level policy

index.html:

<head>
<!-- document-level policy: strict-origin-when-cross-origin -->
<meta name="referrer" content="strict-origin-when-cross-origin" />
<head>
<body>
<!-- policy on this <a> element: no-referrer-when-downgrade -->
<a src="" href="" referrerpolicy="no-referrer-when-downgrade"></a>
<body></body>
</body>
</head>
</head>

Note that Safari/WebKit may cap document.referrer or the Referer header for cross-site requests. See details.

Example: request-level policy

script.js:

fetch(url, {referrerPolicy: 'no-referrer-when-downgrade'});

What else should you consider?

Your policy should depend on your website and use cases—this is up to you, your team, and your company. If some URLs contain identifying or sensitive data, set a protective policy.

Warning: Data that might not look sensitive to you can be sensitive for your users, or is simply not data they want or expect to silently leak cross-origin.

Using the referrer from incoming requests: best practices

What to do if your site's functionality uses the referrer URL of incoming requests?

Protect users' data

The Referer may contain private, personal, or identifying data—so make sure you treat it as such.

Keep in mind that the Referer you receive may change

Using the referrer from incoming cross-origin requests has a few limitations:

  • If you have no control over the request emitter's implementation, you can't make assumptions about the Referer header (and document.referrer) you receive. The request emitter may decide anytime to switch to a no-referrer policy, or more generally to a stricter policy than what they used before—meaning you'll get less data via the Referer than you used to.
  • Browsers are increasingly using the Referrer-Policy strict-origin-when-cross-origin by default. This means that you may now receive only the origin (instead of full referrer URL) in incoming cross-origin requests, if the site that sends these has no policy set.
  • Browsers may change the way they manage Referer; for example, in the future, they may decide to always trim referrers to origins in cross-origin subresource requests, in order to protect user privacy.
  • The Referer header (and document.referrer) may contain more data than you need, for example a full URL when you only want to know if the request is cross-origin.

Alternatives to Referer

You may need to consider alternatives if:

  • An essential functionality of your site uses the referrer URL of incoming cross-origin requests;
  • And/or if your site is not receiving anymore the part of the referrer URL it needs in a cross-origin request. This happens when the request emitter changed their policy or when they have no policy set and the browser default's policy changed (like in Chrome 85).

To define alternatives, analyze first what part of the referrer you're using.

If you only need the origin (https://site-one.example):

  • If you're using the referrer in a script that has top-level access to the page, window.location.origin is an alternative.
  • If available, headers like Origin and Sec-Fetch-Site give you the Origin or describe whether the request is cross-origin, which may be exactly what you need.

If you need other elements of the URL (path, query parameters…):

  • Request parameters may address your use case and this saves you the work of parsing the referrer.
  • If you're using the referrer in a script that has top-level access to the page, window.location.pathname may be an alternative. Extract only the path section of the URL and pass it on as an argument, so any potentially sensitive information in the URL parameters isn't passed on.

If you can't use these alternatives:

  • Check if your systems can be changed to expect the request emitter (site-one.example) to explicitly set the information you need in a configuration of some sort. Pro: more explicit, more privacy-preserving for site-one.example users, more future-proof. Con: potentially more work from your side or for your system's users.
  • Check whether the site that emits the requests may agree to set a per-element or per-request Referrer-Policy of no-referrer-when-downgrade. Con: potentially less privacy-preserving for site-one.example users, potentially not supported in all browsers.

Cross-Site Request Forgery (CSRF) protection

Note that a request emitter can always decide not to send the referrer by setting a no-referrer policy (and a malicious actor could even spoof the referrer).

Use CSRF tokens as your primary protection. For extra protection, use SameSite—and instead of Referer, use headers such as Origin (available on POST and CORS requests) and Sec-Fetch-Site (if available).

Logging

Make sure to protect users' personal or sensitive data that may be in the Referer.

If you're only using the origin, check if the Origin header could be an alternative. This may give you the information that you need for debugging purposes in a simpler way and without needing to parse the referrer.

Payments

Payment providers may rely on the Referer header of incoming requests for security checks.

For example:

  • The user clicks a Buy button on online-shop.example/cart/checkout.
  • online-shop.example redirects to payment-provider.example to manage the transaction.
  • payment-provider.example checks the Referer of this request against a list of allowed Referer values set up by the merchants. If it doesn't match any entry in the list, payment-provider.example rejects the request. If it does match, the user can proceed to the transaction.

Best practices for payment flow security checks

Summary: as a payment provider, you can use the Referer as a basic check against naive attacks—but you should absolutely have another, more reliable verification method in place.

The Referer header alone isn't a reliable basis for a check: the requesting site, whether they're a legitimate merchant or not, can set a no-referrer policy which will make the Referer information unavailable to the payment provider. However, as a payment provider, looking at the Referer may help you catch naive attackers who did not set a no-referrer policy. So you can decide to use the Referer as a first basic check. If you do so:

  • Do not expect the Referer to always be present; and if it's present, only check against the piece of data it will include at the minimum: the origin. When setting the list of allowed Referer values, make sure that no path is included, but only the origin. Example: the allowed Referer values for online-shop.example should be online-shop.example, not online-shop.example/cart/checkout. Why? Because by expecting either no Referer at all or a Referer value that is the origin of the requesting website, you prevent unexpected errors since you're not making assumptions about the Referrer-Policy your merchant has set or about the browser's behavior if the merchant has no policy set. Both the site and the browser could strip the Referer sent in the incoming request to only the origin or not send the Referer at all.
  • If the Referer is absent or if it's present and your basic Referer origin check was successful: you can move onto your other, more reliable verification method (see below).

What is a more reliable verification method?

One reliable verification method is to let the requester hash the request parameters together with a unique key. As a payment provider, you can then calculate the same hash on your side and only accept the request if it matches your calculation.

What happens to the Referer when an HTTP merchant site with no referrer policy redirects to an HTTPS payment provider?

No Referer will be visible in the request to the HTTPS payment provider, because most browsers use strict-origin-when-cross-origin or no-referrer-when-downgrade by default when a website has no policy set. Also note that Chrome's change to a new default policy won't change this behaviour.

If your website uses HTTP, migrate to HTTPS.

Conclusion

A protective referrer policy is a great way to give your users more privacy.

To learn more about different techniques to protect your users, check out web.dev's Safe and secure collection!

With many thanks for contributions and feedback to all reviewers - especially Kaustubha Govind, David Van Cleve, Mike West, Sam Dutton, Rowan Merewood, Jxck and Kayce Basques.

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