Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Web Services Security

I spent the last two days in downtown Manhattan attending Web Services Security training by Gunnar Peterson and TechSmart Solutions Group. It was definitely worth while. I had been of the REST mindset, where I wondered why all the added complexity of web services, WS-Security, SAML, etc, was necessary. I always asked myself why can't we just use HTTP GET's to get things done?

Maybe for some one-off situations REST is fine. But for large scale enterprise deployments, where a given web service request/response may travel over multiple hops, through different organizations, the added complexity has some real value. For example, SAML and federated identity services can make authenticating web service requests across organizational boundaries seamless and reliable. And WS-Security standards for message level encryption allow you to protect the data your trafficking while allowing authorized systems to view message routing information within your SOAP request.

One interesting attack Gunnar speaks about in his training is the "Encrypted Element Known Plain Text Attack". In this attack, if an attacker knows your XSD or DTD , and you encrypt entire XML elements instead of just the data within the element, the attacker can much more easily brute force your encryption.

An example:

<xs:element name="Name"...>
<xs:element name="Username"...>
<xs:element name="Password"...>


In the above situation, the attacker can safely assume that the encrypted value starts with <password> and ends with </password>. I'm no cryptography expert, but I think it is easy to see how this makes the attackers job easier.

In this example, you are better off encrypting less of the XML document, like this:

Now, only the password value is encrypted, and your encrypted data is within the password element. The attacker gets no benefit from knowing your XSD.

XML security can be quite versatile. The above example shows the distinction between encrypting an entire element and encrypting just the data, and how encrypting more than you really need to can actually reduce your overall security. In some situations, you may want to encrypt different elements in your document with different keys, such that different systems can read only the data they need to see within the XML.

In short, all this web service stuff is pretty cool. If you can, definitely enroll in one of Gunnars' classes.