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REST Security Does Exist—You Just Need To Apply It

On the eve of the RSA conference this year, Chris Comerford and Pete Soderling published a provocative article in Computerworld titled Why REST security doesn’t exist. It’s a prelude to a talk the author’s are delivering at the conference. Their premise is that while good REST security best practices do indeed exist, developers just don’t seem to follow them.

Comerford and Sodering attribute this state of affairs to a combination of two things. First, REST lacks a well-articulated security model. Few would argue with this—REST, by virtue of it’s grassroots origins, suffers from a security just-do-it-like-the-web nonchalance that’s certainly done it no favors.

The second issue concerns developers who tend to rush implementation without giving due consideration to security. Truthfully, this is the story of security across all of IT, but I might suggest that with REST, the problem is especially acute. The REST style owes much of its popularity to being simple and fast to implement, particularly when faced with the interest-crushing complexity and tooling demands of the WS-* stack. It’s reasonable to think that in the enthusiastic dash to cross the working application finish line, that security is conveniently de-emphasized or forgotten altogether.

REST, of course, can be secured, and the author’s offer sound advice to accomplish this deceptively simple task. They recommend that API developers:

  • “Do employ the same security mechanisms for your APIs as any web application your organization deploys. For example, if you are filtering for XSS on the web front-end, you must do it for your APIs, preferably with the same tools.
  • Don’t roll your own security. Use a framework or existing library that has been peer-reviewed and tested. Developers not familiar with designing secure systems often produce flawed security implementations when they try to do it themselves, and they leave their APIs vulnerable to attack.
  • Unless your API is a free, read-only public API, don’t use single key-based authentication. It’s not enough. Add a password requirement.
  • Don’t pass unencrypted static keys. If you’re using HTTP Basic and sending it across the wire, encrypt it.
  • Ideally, use hash-based message authentication code (HMAC) because it’s the most secure. (Use SHA-2 and up, avoid SHA & MD5 because of vulnerabilities.) “

I agree with this advice. And just to demonstrate how easy it is to implement, I’ve constructed a simple policy for the Layer 7 Technologies SecureSpan Gateway demonstrating their directives:

In this policy, I’m ensuring that the REST client is using SSL for three things: confidentiality, integrity, and server authentication. I could require client-side certificate authentication here, but instead I’m using HTTP digest, to emphasize the requirement to avoid using plain text HTTP basic or simple user keys. I’m authorizing access based on group membership here, restricting access to members of the sales group.

Finally, I’ve added a scan for cross site scripting attacks.

In the interest of deeper vigilance, I’m also searching for PHP and shell injection signatures. This is admittedly broad, but it covers me in case the developer of the service changes implementation without warning.

This last point—that there is an explicit separation made between developers and the security administrators writing and enforcing policy—is an important one. Developers will be developers: some will be rigorous about implementing security best practices; others won’t be. The only way to manage this is to assume a defensive posture in service policy, both from the perspective of incoming transactions, but also around the services themselves. The best practice here is to externalize policy enforcement and assign dedicated security professionals to administer policy.

This defensive approach to securing REST services fits well with the spirit of Comerford and Soderling’s directives. It addresses, in particular, their point about leveraging peer-reviewed frameworks. This is precisely what Layer 7’s SecureSpan Gateway is—a peer-reviewed security framework offering great depth of functionality. SecureSpan is undergoing Common Criteria Review of its implementation, as well as the entire development process for the product. We’re certifying to EAL4+, which is particularly rigorous. This provides assurance that the technology is sufficiently robust for deployment at the highest levels of military and the government. Common Criteria is an arduous process, and going through it demonstrates Layer 7’s deep commitment to security. You should not ever consider a security gateway—for REST, or for XML messaging—that isn’t undergoing the Common Criteria evaluation. Remember, Common Criteria is a necessary stamp of approval for governments around the world; it should also be a basic requirement for you.

Try SecureSpan yourself, and see how you can implement robust application security and monitoring without changing code. Download an evaluation of the SecureSpan virtual appliance right here.


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More Stories By Scott Morrison

K. Scott Morrison is the Chief Technology Officer and Chief Architect at Layer 7 Technologies, where he is leading a team developing the next generation of security infrastructure for cloud computing and SOA. An architect and developer of highly scalable, enterprise systems for over 20 years, Scott has extensive experience across industry sectors as diverse as health, travel and transportation, and financial services. He has been a Director of Architecture and Technology at Infowave Software, a leading maker of wireless security and acceleration software for mobile devices, and was a senior architect at IBM. Before shifting to the private sector, Scott was with the world-renowned medical research program of the University of British Columbia, studying neurodegenerative disorders using medical imaging technology.

Scott is a dynamic, entertaining and highly sought-after speaker. His quotes appear regularly in the media, from the New York Times, to the Huffington Post and the Register. Scott has published over 50 book chapters, magazine articles, and papers in medical, physics, and engineering journals. His work has been acknowledged in the New England Journal of Medicine, and he has published in journals as diverse as the IEEE Transactions on Nuclear Science, the Journal of Cerebral Blood Flow, and Neurology. He is the co-author of the graduate text Cloud Computing, Principles, Systems and Applications published by Springer, and is on the editorial board of Springer’s new Journal of Cloud Computing Advances, Systems and Applications (JoCCASA). He co-authored both Java Web Services Unleashed and Professional JMS. Scott is an editor of the WS-I Basic Security Profile (BSP), and is co-author of the original WS-Federation specification. He is a recent co-author of the Cloud Security Alliance’s Security Guidance for Critical Areas of Focus in Cloud Computing, and an author of that organization’s Top Threats to Cloud Computing research. Scott was recently a featured speaker for the Privacy Commission of Canada’s public consultation into the privacy implications of cloud computing. He has even lent his expertise to the film and television industry, consulting on a number of features including the X-Files. Scott’s current interests are in cloud computing, Web services security, enterprise architecture and secure mobile computing—and of course, his wife and two great kids.

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