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Web Services Security: Trouble in Transit

Web services put more of your company's data into the ether, offering more chances for someone to snatch it.

By Bob Violino
August 16, 2004 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - A transport company's trucks are scheduled for bogus pickups. A financial services firm's investment data is given away for free. A health insurance provider's private patient data is exposed. These are the disastrous situations that can occur when Web services data is nefariously snatched midstream.

The shareable design of Web services, which gives companies the benefit of easily exchanging data and applications with business partners, also makes them vulnerable to security breaches. Hackers have found ways to tweak the XML code used to tag the data so activity that's actually an attack appears to be valid.

"XML standards are being constructed in bits and pieces, and that's the kind of event that leads to holes that someone didn't think about," says Randy Heffner, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc.

According to experts, hackers have three methods for breaching Web services and XML security: identity-based attacks, in which a hacker poses as an authorized user to gain access to Web services; malicious-content attacks, in which an intruder forces a Web server to perform an unauthorized activity; and operational attacks, in which a hacker manipulates an XML message to tie up server resources. But although the methods are known, safeguarding Web services is difficult because multiple elements must be locked down -- the servers, the messages and the applications. Companies must first secure their Web servers and then decide which business partners and employees will have access to them, how they'll connect to them and which authentication method to use.

No Small Task
Defense manufacturer Northrop Grumman Corp. experienced that difficulty firsthand. Web services are a major component of its portal, which was expected to take about six months to complete. But because of security requirements such as user authentication, the project took three times as long, says Thomas Shelman, vice president and CIO.

The portal gives Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman a way to efficiently share ordering and billing data with customers and partners, he says. But while provides greater data access to more people, it also creates vulnerabilities because many users outside the organization have access to business applications.

"[The portal] was a significantly larger task than we thought going into it," Shelman says. "I know a lot of companies that are implementing the same sort of thing, and they don't address the security aspects. They're leaving themselves very vulnerable."

"The need for security goes up exponentially as you're trying to expose applications to your business partners," adds Raphael Holder, vice president of shared services operations at Northrop Grumman. He says the company first grappled with how to provide secure remote access to Web services applications for internal employees and ensure that all users entering the portal were authenticated.

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