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Researcher: Security risks in Web services largely ignored

AJAX, XML could be exploited by hackers, Stamos warns

By Robert McMillan
April 7, 2006 12:00 PM ET

IDG News Service - VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- In their rush to implement Web services, some companies may be exposing themselves to new security risks that they may not fully understand, a security researcher said yesterday.

During a presentation at the CanSecWest/core06 conference, researcher Alex Stamos outlined how a number of Web services technologies, including AJAX and the XQuery query language, could be exploited by hackers to dig up secret information and attack systems.

Web services is a catch-all expression used to describe a form of distributed computing that uses standards based on XML to simplify the job of programming software. One of its key tenets is that Web services applications are extremely portable and can easily interact with different types of software.

While this cross-platform capability can simplify programming, it can also create security risks by creating situations that may not have been anticipated by software developers, said Stamos, a founding partner of Information Security Partners LLC in San Francisco. During his talk, he described an attack whereby a user could enter malicious code into a Web form and then get that code to run by calling up the company's customer service number and tricking a representative into inadvertently executing it.

Stamos also showed how Web services requests could be used to conduct denial-of-service attacks, either by creating malicious XML queries that use massive amounts of memory or by bombarding databases applications with more requests than they can handle.

Web application vendors have created tools that work like "magic," hiding complexity and making it easy to create Web services. Unfortunately, these tools also make it easy for their users to ignore the security implications of the software they're building, Stamos said.

"Because of all that magic pixie dust, the people who write Web services don't necessarily understand how they work," he said. "We have a lot of customers who are hanging unbelievably crazy functionality ... just out on the Internet."

And hackers are catching on. Last month, security vendor Symantec Corp. issued its biannual Internet Security Threat report, noting that Web applications represent an increasingly attractive target for attackers. Of all vulnerabilities disclosed in the past six months of 2005, nearly 70% were associated with Web applications, Symantec said.

The trend is of particular concern to smaller companies that may not have the budgets to fully test the security of their software. But Stamos said that Web application vendors could help by adding input filtering capabilities to their products to make them better able to tell when their software is being asked to do something that it shouldn't.

Security researchers also should be paying more attention to the issue, Stamos said. "We want to get more security people looking at Web services stuff," he said. "Web application security is the red-headed stepchild of the security industry."

Reprinted with permission from Story copyright 2014 International Data Group. All rights reserved.
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