AJAX is not a technology; rather, it is a collection of technologies each providing robust foundations when designing and developing web applications:
- XHTML or HTML and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) providing the standards for representing content to the user.
- Document Object Model (DOM) that provides the structure to allow for the dynamic representation of content and related interaction. The DOM exposes powerful ways for users to access and manipulate elements within any document.
- XML and XSLT that provide the formats for data to be manipulated, transferred and exchanged between server and client.
- XML HTTP Request: The main disadvantages of building web applications is that once a particular webpage is loaded within the user’s browser, the related server connection is cut off. Further browsing (even) within the page itself requires establishing another connection with the server and sending the whole page back even though the user might have simply wanted to expand a simple link. XML HTTP Request allows asynchronous data retrieval or ensuring that the page does not reload in its entirety each time the user requests the smallest of changes.
As such, AJAX is meant to increase interactivity, speed, and usability. The technologies have prompted a richer and friendly experience for the user as web applications are designed to imitate ‘traditional’ desktop applications including Google Docs and Spreadsheets, Google Maps and Yahoo! Mail.
At the start of a web session, instead of loading the requested webpage, an AJAX engine written in JS is loaded. Acting as a “middleman”, this engine resides between the user and the web server acting both as a rendering interface and as a means of communication between the client browser and server.
The difference which this functionality brings about is instantly noticeable. When sending a request to a web server, one notices that individual components of the page are updated independently (asynchronous) doing away with the previous need to wait for a whole page to become active until it is loaded (synchronous).
Imagine webmail – previously, reading email involved a variety of clicks and the sending and retrieving of the various frames that made up the interface just to allow the presentation of the various emails of the user. This drastically slowed down the user’s experience. With asynchronous transfer, the AJAX application completely eliminates the “start-stop-start-stop” nature of interaction on the web – requests to the server are completely transparent to the user.
Another noticeable benefit is the relatively faster loading of the various components of the site which was requested. This also leads to a significant reduction in bandwidth required per request since the web page does not need to reload its complete content.
Other important benefits brought about by AJAX coded applications include: insertion and/or deletion of records, submission of web forms, fetching search queries, and editing category trees – performed more effectively and efficiently without the need to request the full HTML of the page each time.
Although a most powerful set of technologies, developers must be aware of the potential security holes and breaches to which AJAX applications have (and will) become vulnerable.
According to Pete Lindstrom, Director of Security Strategies with the Hurwitz Group, Web applications are the most vulnerable elements of an organization’s IT infrastructure today. An increasing number of organizations (both for-profit and not-for-profit) depend on Internet-based applications that leverage the power of AJAX. As this group of technologies becomes more complex to allow the depth and functionality discussed, and, if organizations do not secure their web applications, then security risks will only increase.
Increased interactivity within a web application means an increase of XML, text, and general HTML network traffic. This leads to exposing back-end applications which might have not been previously vulnerable, or, if there is insufficient server-side protection, to giving unauthenticated users the possibility of manipulating their privilege configurations.
There is the general misconception that in AJAX applications are more secure because it is thought that a user cannot access the server-side script without the rendered user interface (the AJAX based webpage). XML HTTP Request based web applications obscure server-side scripts, and this obscurity gives website developers and owners a false sense of security – obscurity is not security. Since XML HTTP requests function by using the same protocol as all else on the web (HTTP), technically speaking, AJAX-based web applications are vulnerable to the same hacking methodologies as ‘normal’ applications.
Subsequently, there is an increase in session management vulnerabilities and a greater risk of hackers gaining access to the many hidden URLs which are necessary for AJAX requests to be processed.
Another weakness of AJAX is the process that formulates server requests. The Ajax engine uses JS to capture the user commands and to transform them into function calls. Such function calls are sent in plain visible text to the server and may easily reveal database table fields such as valid product and user IDs, or even important variable names, valid data types or ranges, and any other parameters which may be manipulated by a hacker.
With this information, a hacker can easily use AJAX functions without the intended interface by crafting specific HTTP requests directly to the server. In case of cross-site scripting, maliciously injected scripts can actually leverage the AJAX provided functionalities to act on behalf of the user thereby tricking the user with the ultimate aim of redirecting his browsing session (e.g., phishing) or monitoring his traffic.
Although many websites attribute their interactive features to JS, the widespread use of such technology brings about several grave security concerns.
In the past, most of these security issues arose from worms either targeting mailing systems or exploiting Cross Site Scripting (XSS) weaknesses of vulnerable websites. Such self-propagating worms enabled code to be injected into websites with the aim of being parsed and/or executed by Web browsers or e-mail clients to manipulate or simply retrieve user data.
As web-browsers and their technological capabilities continue to evolve, so does malicious use reinforcing the old and creating new security concerns related to JS and AJAX. This technological advancement is also occurring at a time when there is a significant shift in the ultimate goal of the hacker whose primary goal has changed from acts of vandalism (e.g., website defacement) to theft of corporate data (e.g., customer credit card details) that yield lucrative returns on the black market.
XSS worms will become increasingly intelligent and highly capable of carrying out dilapidating attacks such as widespread network denial of service attacks, spamming and mail attacks, and rampant browser exploits. It has also been recently discovered that it is possible to use JS to map domestic and corporate networks, which instantly makes any devices on the network (print servers, routers, storage devices) vulnerable to attacks.
Ultimately such sophisticated attacks could lead to pinpointing specific network assets to embed malicious JS within a webpage on the corporate intranet, or any AJAX application available for public use and returning data.
The problem to date is that most web scanning tools available encounter serious problems auditing web pages with embedded JS. For example, client-side JS require a great degree of manual intervention (rather than automation).
Summary and Conclusions
The evolution of web technologies is heading in a direction which allows web applications to be increasingly efficient, responsive and interactive. Such progress, however, also increases the threats which businesses and web developers face on a daily basis.
With public ports 80 (HTTP) and 443 (HTTPS) always open to allow dynamic content delivery and exchange, websites are at a constant risk to data theft and defacement, unless they are audited regularly with a reliable web application scanner. As the complexity of technology increases, website weaknesses become more evident and vulnerabilities more grave.
The advent of AJAX applications has raised considerable security issues due to a broadened threat window brought about by the very same technologies and complexities developed. With an increase in script execution and information exchanged in server/client requests and responses, hackers have greater opportunity to steal data thereby costing organizations thousands of dollars in lost revenue, severe fines, diminished customer trust and substantial damage to your organization’s reputation and credibility.