Web API security basics

When I proposed the lead developer of an open source web application to enable JSONP for the API, the developer replied:

The whole thing sounds easy enough to implement, but I have some doubts that it will open the project to XSS attack of some sort. Don’t really know why, though. :-)

We mailed a bit more about the risks of cross site scripting and then he wrote the following:

Sadly we can have malicious JS problems since cleaning up of incoming data is optional.

For an unrelated project I asked about authentication for a write-operation in the API and the reply was:

Authentication is not in the API yet. Currently you must include a session cookie along with API requests to perform a write, but the cookie itself is the one you get from logging in [in the web front end] as you would normally.

Which sounds a lot like “we support cross site request forgery out of the box” …

As with normal web applications, web API-security is an important (but complex) issue, which is not always easy to grasp. Based on a basic understanding of things, the following guidelines can go a long way into securing things both on the API-side and the client:

  1. Know who you’re dealing with; disable API-access for your users by default (allowing them to opt-in), provide bullet-proof authentication and session management in the API and throw in a synchronizer token to prevent cross site request forgery
  2. Never trust input from users or external systems; decide what to trust and filter out everything that’s not in that white-list (SQL-code, server-side code, javascript, and even html and css)

If you apply these basic principles to JSONP (make sure to filter the callback-parameter and set the correct content-type in your response) you’ll have a whole lot less to worry about!

More info:

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