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Startup Secures Mashups

New SSL-based technology lets Web applications authenticate to one another
A startup out of the University of Texas today released a new open protocol and related technology that addresses the inherent security risks to Web 2.0-type application mashups.

SafeMashups' new technology lets applications authenticate with one another using the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) protocol before they "mash up" -- or basically blend their data and functionality. To date, most enterprises have been uneasy about adopting mashups given the difficulty of establishing trust among online applications sharing data and functionality via a browser.

"There has been no Internet-standard way of doing that," says Ravi Ganesan, CEO of SafeMashups and research professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA). "To some extent, [mashups] are a little of a boon in these bad economic times because if I'm the CIO and don't have the money to develop brand-new functionality, it might be a quick and dirty way to give enterprise users new functionality."

SafeMashups, which is part of a cybersecurity incubator program at UTSA, hopes to get more input on its open protocol, MashSSL Version 1.0. The startup also released the MashSSL Web Toolkit, which integrates the protocol into applications, works with existing SSL certificates for applications to authenticate one another, and sets up a secure communications channel between them. SafeMashups is also is offering a free, cloud-based authorization service called SafeMashups Community Service, which manages an organization's access control lists for them.

While mashups have been touted as a potentially strategic technology for enterprises, SafeMashups cites a recent KPMG survey in which half of the participating executives attributed security problems to limiting their firms' adoption of Web 2.0 applications.

But analysts say the new protocol for securing mashups could help propel their adoption. "I think this will drive adoption of mashups, since one limiting factor of mashup use is the challenge associated with data protection and data control, [which] can be a barrier to deployment of mashups," says Diana Kelley, a partner with consulting firm SecurityCurve. "On the one hand, technology has made exchange of data more flexible and seamless, but increasing regulatory requirements can make organizations more conservative in how it's done.

"MashSSL is a way for organizations to trust the source of exchanged data, as well as protect the data in transit. This reduces the 'scare factor' for some organizations associated with use of the technology."

But data ownership issues still exist, Kelley says. "The [MashSSL] solution addresses the underlying technical challenges associated with the secure exchange of data between institutions and authentication of the parties at both end," she says. But it doesn't address the broader business problem of confirming that the partner on the other side of a mashup has the proper data and other controls, Kelley adds.

What about SSL's recent security woes, including new-found vulnerabilities to man-in-the middle attacks? SafeMashups' Ganesan says the focus on SSL vulnerability research is "a huge strength" for SSL's evolution. Plus, unlike browser-to-Web server SSL sessions, which are one-way authentication, mutual authentication using SSL has not been shown to be vulnerable to man-in-the middle attacks, he says. "MashSSL is using mutual authentication," he says. "And mutual authentication has never been subject to a man-in-the-middle attack."

SafeMashups will market its technology to certificate authorities such as VeriSign, as well as to mashup software vendors like IBM, Microsoft, and SAP, all of which would, in turn, incorporate the secure mashup technology into their enterprise software products.

SecurityCurve's Kelley says large firms whose main business is to offer services to their customers will benefit most from this secure mashup technology. "Not only can the technology be used to enable partnerships between firms, but it can also allow better integration between siloed business units," she says. "These firms will also have more flexibility in whom they partner with because integration will be easier."

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