|By Frank Nimphius||
|October 7, 2007 09:30 AM EDT||
At first glance, it seems that the AJAX security discussion is a retelling of the tale of the emperor's new clothes. At second glance, however, it is obvious that there is a new component in AJAX security - the rich and interactive client. If this smart client really introduces a new security threat to Web applications, then the following questions arise: What can be done today, and what needs to be done in the future, to avoid ÒkillerÓ applications built with AJAX?
The Security Dilemma
Technology alone seldom is the problem. Lack of security in an application arises because of what developers do with the underlying technologies. To build secure Web applications - and this hasn't changed since traditional Web applications - there are two aspects of equal importance to be considered: humans and technology.
The most prevalent philosophy in application security is that security should not be added as an after thought, but should be included by design and default. The latter, however, never seems to happen in this feature-driven Internet technology industry, where new technologies are continuously being born. Two schools of thought exist in security: those who know everything and those who know next to nothing. It appears that because those who know everything are accustomed to handling the shortcomings of a given technology themselves, by devising workarounds or by using third-party security frameworks, it is up to those who know next to nothing to standardize security, making it a reachable goal for everyone.
• Same Origin Policy: The same origin policy prevents scripts that are downloaded from a Website to access properties on a page that is downloaded from another Website. The security of the same origin policy, which ensures that malicious scripts do not hijack other loaded documents or spy on user cookies or key inputs, conflicts with another Web 2.0 wanted functionality: mashup. A mashup is an application page that consumes mixed services to build a composite Web-user interface. This type of application may need to interoperate between page fragments, even if it is downloaded from different servers and domains. Within the AJAX community and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), a desire exists to loosen the same origin policy limitation for XMLHttpRequest object (XHR) requests, which, from a security perspective, would require trusted clients that do not exist today.
Where AJAX Fits in an MVC Architecture
Modern Web applications that implement the model view controller (MVC) pattern demand a separation of the application presentation from its life cycle and model. AJAX is a presentation layer technology that is used to render interactive Web-user interfaces in rich Internet applications (RIA). As an application developer, you don't write end-to-end business applications in AJAX. Instead, you use a server-side technology to handle the business logic. One of the niceties of AJAX is that it is independent of the server technology business layer. Therefore, AJAX works the same with Java, C, Perl, PLSQL, and .NET back ends. This clean separation between the presentation and business layers is a choice that every application developer should consider. Security should be implemented end-to-end, which means that all parts of the application should follow the same policy and share the same user security context. This also includes database security if databases are involved.
Security in AJAX
While client-side security protects the end user from the application, application security protects the application from the user. Protection includes enforcement of authentication, authorization, and data privacy.
Security design patterns are recommendations of best practices to mitigate the risk of an identified threat. Patterns that exist for Web applications include defense in depth, limited view, least privileged access, checkpoint, and roles.
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