Dark Reading is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Cloud

4/24/2012
01:03 AM
50%
50%

Insecure API Implementations Threaten Cloud

Web and cloud services allow third-party access by exposing application programming interfaces, but many developers and customers do not adequately secure the keys to the cloud and their data, experts say

Attackers over the past three years have begun to actively target the digital keys used to secure the Internet infrastructure. Stuxnet's creators stole code-signing keys and then used them to allow the malware to more easily evade host-based security. An alleged Iranian hacker broke into a partner of registry Comodo and bought Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) keys for major domains to eavesdrop on activists. And unknown attackers stole important information on RSA's SecureID token, a device that generates one-time keys to strengthen online security.

The unique codes that applications in the cloud use to identify one another could be next, security experts say.

So-called API keys are used by Web and cloud services to identify third-party applications using the services. If service providers are not careful, an attacker with access to the key can cause a denial-of-service or rack up fees on behalf of the victim.

"It was created as a fairly nonauthoritative identifier -- it was only there to identify applications or the application's use of an API," says K. Scott Morrison, chief technology officer of Layer7 Technologies, a provider of Web security and governance products. "The problem is that developers have started using API keys for stuff that matters."

The problem is not any inherent weakness in the keys, but that developers use them for security when they ought not, he says. In many implementations, the keys are used to identify users, even though the technology was not meant as a way to authorize access to data. And after expanding the power of the keys, developers do not treat them as critical assets. Instead, companies fail to keep track of the keys, e-mailing them around and storing them on desktop hard drives.

"They shouldn't be used for anything that matters, but people do. And when they do, they don't take it as far as they need to," Morrison says. "It's kind of the worst of both worlds."

During a presentation at the RSA Security Conference earlier this year, Morrison stressed the danger in the misuse and mishandling of API keys. The warning was repeated at the recent SOURCE Boston conference by application gateway maker Vordel. An improper implementation that allows simple access to an API via use of a secret key can allow attackers to have unmitigated access if the key can be sniffed out or stolen from an authorized user's computer, said Jeremy Westerman, Vordel's director of product management, at the conference.

"There is a need to protect these cloud API keys," Westerman said. "There is a lot of awareness in the industry about protecting, say, SSL keys ... Unfortunately, protecting API keys has not reached that level of awareness."

Cloud and Web service developers must first follow best practices in opening up their APIs to third parties. In return, third-party developers need to handle the keys in a secure manner and not, for example, encode a nonobfuscated key into an application.

[Microsoft Research report shows how risky single sign-on can be without solid integration and better support from Web service providers like Google and Facebook. See Web Services Single Sign-On Contain Big Flaws.]

Communicating best practices can go a long way to fixing the issues, says Mark O'Neill, Vordel's chief technology officer.

"The SaaS [software-as-a-service] providers expect you to protect these keys, but they don't tell you how to protect the keys," O'Neill says.

Companies that have API keys should treat them as valued assets, he says. The keys should be handled in much the same way as code-signing keys and other encryption material.

API keys were first used by Google, Yahoo, and other early pioneers of Web services. However, as the model moved from standalone sites to Web 2.0 mashups and the companies exposed their services for use by other websites, the weaknesses of API keys quickly became evident. Companies began to implement different schemes for application and user authentication, including OAuth, the Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML), and hashed-based authentication codes (HMACs).

The stronger authentication methods should be used for securing sensitive data, and each token should have a reasonable expiration time. In addition, because secret keys are occasionally exchanged, communications should always be over SSL, says Gregory Brail, vice president of technology for Web technology and services firm Apigee.

"The developer needs to understand the limitations and understand the best practices around implementing API keys," he says.

Developers should still use API keys, Brail says. They should just use them for their proper function and use other tools as the situation demands.

"I'm not saying that there is nothing that can go wrong here; I'm saying that this is not a reason to throw away your API keys," Brail says. "They are an important part of your whole security system."

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Add Your Comment" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message.

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
Commentary
How SolarWinds Busted Up Our Assumptions About Code Signing
Dr. Jethro Beekman, Technical Director,  3/3/2021
News
'ObliqueRAT' Now Hides Behind Images on Compromised Websites
Jai Vijayan, Contributing Writer,  3/2/2021
News
Attackers Turn Struggling Software Projects Into Trojan Horses
Robert Lemos, Contributing Writer,  2/26/2021
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Video
Cartoon Contest
Write a Caption, Win an Amazon Gift Card! Click Here
Latest Comment: George has not accepted that the technology age has come to an end.
Current Issue
2021 Top Enterprise IT Trends
We've identified the key trends that are poised to impact the IT landscape in 2021. Find out why they're important and how they will affect you today!
Flash Poll
How Enterprises are Developing Secure Applications
How Enterprises are Developing Secure Applications
Recent breaches of third-party apps are driving many organizations to think harder about the security of their off-the-shelf software as they continue to move left in secure software development practices.
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
CVE-2021-23351
PUBLISHED: 2021-03-08
The package github.com/pires/go-proxyproto before 0.5.0 are vulnerable to Denial of Service (DoS) via the parseVersion1() function. The reader in this package is a default bufio.Reader wrapping a net.Conn. It will read from the connection until it finds a newline. Since no limits are implemented in ...
CVE-2009-20001
PUBLISHED: 2021-03-07
An issue was discovered in MantisBT before 2.24.5. It associates a unique cookie string with each user. This string is not reset upon logout (i.e., the user session is still considered valid and active), allowing an attacker who somehow gained access to a user's cookie to login as them.
CVE-2020-28466
PUBLISHED: 2021-03-07
This affects all versions of package github.com/nats-io/nats-server/server. Untrusted accounts are able to crash the server using configs that represent a service export/import cycles. Disclaimer from the maintainers: Running a NATS service which is exposed to untrusted users presents a heightened r...
CVE-2021-27364
PUBLISHED: 2021-03-07
An issue was discovered in the Linux kernel through 5.11.3. drivers/scsi/scsi_transport_iscsi.c is adversely affected by the ability of an unprivileged user to craft Netlink messages.
CVE-2021-27365
PUBLISHED: 2021-03-07
An issue was discovered in the Linux kernel through 5.11.3. Certain iSCSI data structures do not have appropriate length constraints or checks, and can exceed the PAGE_SIZE value. An unprivileged user can send a Netlink message that is associated with iSCSI, and has a length up to the maximum length...