Stating the obvious.

Just read another article telling us of yet another way to build a great product for yet another set of technologies. And I can’t believe I’m about to list some things that should be painfully obvious to any developer–things which were ignored by this article.

When building a web site or a mobile application which communicates with a back-end server:

Assume your wire protocol is completely insecure.

There are dozens of tools out there which allows a user of your app (your web site, your mobile app, your desktop app) to see transactions going back and forth to your back end server.

“But I’m using HTTPS, that’s secure.”

Sure, against third party snoopers–and not even there, if someone compromises the certificates, or if it’s a product designed to peek inside HTTPS packets. (I’m looking at you, Symantec.)

But it does not protect against someone with the right tools to create a proxy that allows them to decode traffic. And see exactly how your API works.

Corollary: If your business logic is in the front end, you don’t control your business logic.

Once someone has decoded your API protocol, it’s easy for them to then make calls into your API protocol. And if your logic to determine what a user can and cannot do is contained in your app, it’s easy for them to bypass those checks and (oh, say) ship a thousand dollars worth of product to their front door without paying a dime.

Corollary: If your security checks are in the front end, your site is insecure.

That basically follows from the above.

Interestingly we tend to forget this when attempting to implement ‘RESTful’ interfaces–that is, supposedly stateless user interfaces–by pushing security checks onto the client. But that subjects your app to a “replay attack”–where a bad guy snoops the web traffic, discovers the token representing security state, then fiddles that security state to obtain control.

A secure pure REST interface is impossible, if only because when a user logs in, that login state (such as an OAuth token) must be generated and transmitted to the front-end. More importantly it must be invalidated and a new login state token generated the next time the user logs in. You can’t issue the same OAuth token each time the user logs in (say, by doing an SHA-256 hash of the user’s ID plus a salt token), because that subjects your system to a replay attack.

It’s not to suggest outside of the authentication subsystem your interface shouldn’t be stateless.

But never allow the perfect to get in the way of the good–because there are unintended consequences.

And for God’s sake, don’t send the user an encrypted data structure which contains the access control entries they have access to! It’s just a matter of time before someone figures out how to decode that data structure, change the ACEs, and become a superuser.

Instead, admit your RESTful interface is not completely stateless–you have to manage access control lists as state–and move on.

Given all this, your app can be far more than basically a pretty presentation layer on a series of calls which return the contents of each app page as XML. There are times when it is appropriate, for example, to put some business logic in your front-end–but only to reduce the number of round-trips to the back end.

For example, if you have a page that accepts a credit card, you don’t need to do a network call just to see the user forgot to enter a date, a credit card number that passes the credit card number checksum, or to check if the user forgot the security code.

But this does not alleviate the need to duplicate these checks on the back end.

Ultimately, there is no such thing as a free lunch. There is no theoretical model which does a better job than existing models–just tried and proven concepts we should keep implementing, refining them only when there is an honest-to-God problem. We certainly shouldn’t be scrapping it all for the next blue-sky concept; that’s just giving into The Churn, one of the most monumental wastes of everyone’s time.

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