REST Security Cheat Sheet

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REST or REpresentational State Transfer is a means of expressing specific entities in a system by URL path elements, REST is not an architecture but it is an architectural style to build services on top of the Web. REST allows interaction with a web-based system via simplified URL's rather than complex request body or POST parameters to request specific items from the system. This document serves as a guide (although not exhaustive) of best practices to help REST-based services.

Authentication and Session Management

RESTful web services should use session based authentication, either by establishing a session token via a POST, or using an API key as a POST body argument or as a cookie. Usernames and passwords, session tokens and API keys should not appear in the URL, as this can be captured in web server logs and makes them intrinsically valuable.




Protect HTTP methods

RESTful API often use GET (read), POST (create), PUT (replace/update) and DELETE (to delete a record). Not all of these are valid choices for every single resource collection, user, or action. Make sure the incoming HTTP method is valid for the session token/API key and associated resource collection, action, and record. For example, if you have an RESTful API for a library, it's not okay to allow anonymous users to DELETE book catalog entries, but it's fine for them to GET a book catalog entry, whereas for the librarian, both of these are valid uses.

Whitelist Allowable Methods

It is common with RESTful services to allow multiple methods for a given URL for different operations on that entity. For example, a GET request might read the entity while POST would update an existing entity, PUT would create a new entity, and DELETE would delete an existing entity. It is important for the service to properly restrict the allowable verbs such that only the allowed verbs will work, all others return a proper response code (for example, a 403 Forbidden).

In Java EE in particular, this can be difficult to implement properly. See Bypassing Web Authentication and Authorization with HTTP Verb Tampering for an explanation of this common misconfiguration.

Protect privileged actions and sensitive resource collections

Not every user has a right to every web service. This is vital, as you don't want administrative web services to be misused:

The session token or API key should be sent along as a cookie or body parameter to ensure that privileged collections or actions are properly protected from unauthorized use.

Protect against cross-site request forgery

For JSON resources available to browsers, it's important to make sure any PUT, POST and DELETE request is protected from Cross Site Request Forgery. Typically one would use a token based approach. See Cross-Site Request Forgery (CSRF) Prevention Cheat Sheet for more information on how to implement CSRF-protection.

Direct object references

It may seem obvious, but if you had a bank account REST web service, you have to make sure there is adequate checking of primary and foreign keys:

In this case, it would be possible to transfer money from any account to any other account, which is clearly insane. Not even a random token makes this safe.

In this case, it would be possible to get a copy of all invoices.

Please make sure you understand how to protect against direct object references in the OWASP Top 10 2010.

Input Validation

Validate Incoming Content-Types

When POSTing or PUTing new data, the client will specify the a Content-Type (e.g. application/xml or application/json) of the incoming data. The client should never assume the Content-Type, but always check that the Content-Type header and the content is of the same type. A lack of Content-Type header or an unexpected Content-Type header, should result in the server rejecting the Content with a 406 Not Acceptable response.

Validate Response Types

It is common for REST services to allow multiple response types (e.g. application/xml or application/json, and the client specifies the preferred order of response types by the Accept header in the request. Do NOT simply copy the Accept header to the Content-type header of the response. Reject the request (ideally with a 406 Not Acceptable response) if the Accept header does not specifically contain one of the allowable types.

Because there are many MIME types for the typical response types, it's important to document for clients specifically which MIME types should be used.

XML Input Validation

XML-based services must ensure that they are protected against common XML based attacks by using secure XML-parsing. This typically means XML External Entity attacks, XML-signature wrapping etc. See for examples of such attacks.

Output Encoding

Send security headers

To make sure the content of a given resources is interpreted correctly by the browser, the server should always send the Content-Type header with the correct Content-Type. The server should also send an X-Content-Type-Options: nosniff to make sure the browser does not try to detect a different Content-Type than what is actually sent (can lead to XSS).

Additionally the client should send an X-Frame-Options: deny to protect against drag'n drop clickjacking attacks in older browsers.

JSON encoding

A key concern with JSON encoders is to prevent arbitrary JavaScript remote code execution within the browser, or if you're using node.js, on the server. It's vital that you use the JSON library of your choice to encode user supplied data properly to prevent the execution of user supplied input on the browser.

When sending values to the browser, strongly consider using .value rather than .innerHTML updates, as this protects against simple DOM XSS attacks.

XML encoding

XML should never be hand concatenated, it should always be constructed using an XML parser. This ensures that the XML content sent to the browser is parseable, and should not contain XML injection. For more information, please see the Web Service Security Cheat Sheet.

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