Security in Web Services- Issues and Challenges

DOI : 10.17577/IJERTV5IS090245

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Security in Web Services- Issues and Challenges

Aruna. S

M.Tech Computer Science and Engineering School of Computing Science and Engineering VIT University, Vellore

Abstract This paper focuses on the major issues and challenges involved in handling and implementing security in web services. Like any software or web application, web services are also prone to security issues related to authentication, availability and integrity. New and challenging problems related to security arise due to the distributed nature of the web services and their cross platform access and also during service composition. As the web services provide access to the data in an autonomous way, the confidentiality and authenticity of the data transmitted through them attains more importance. In the recent years, many technologies and standards have emerged in order to handle the security issues related to web services. However new threats and attacks related to web services are also coming to forefront. Therefore, a study on the existing standards and protocols for security is carried out. The challenges that arise are also discussed.

Index Terms Composition, REST, SAML, SOAP, XML, WS- Security


A web service is a collection of open protocols and standards used for exchanging data between applications or systems. They are self-contained, modular applications that can be de- scribed, published, located and invoked over a network, gen- erally the World Wide Web [IBM]. These applications can be local, distributed, or web-based. Web services are built on top of open standards such as TCP/IP, HTTP, Java, HTML, and XML. They provide a way of communication between the applications using SOAP, XML, and WSDL. Web Services essentially involve the three roles of the Service Oriented Ar- chitecture: service provider, service requester and service bro- ker. A service provider could be an industry, business or a company capable of providing service. A requester also could be a company or a business that is in need of the service, where as the broker is a place, entity or a system that helps both service provider and service requester to discover each other. Web services are both platform and language independ- ent service components can be exposed using a standard Web Services Description Language (WSDL) and registered at Universal Discovery Description and Integration (UDDI) reg- istries. The Universal Description, Discovery and Integration (UDDI) specification provides a set of services that assist in discovering or inquiring about the availability of Web ser- vices. Web Services Description Language (WSDL), is an XML format for describing network services as a set of end- points operating on messages containing either document- oriented or procedure-oriented information. This WSDL file can be sent directly to perspective users, or published in the UDDI registries. Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) is

used for communication among different Web Services. It is a lightweight protocol for exchanging structured information in the implementation of web services. SOAP is defined inde- pendently of the underlying messaging transport mechanism in use. It allows the use of many alternative transports for message exchange. Despite this general transport independ- ence, most first-generation Web services communicate using HTTP, because it is one of the primary bindings included within the SOAP specification. This paper focuses on the se- curity issues related to web services. The essential security requirements of any web based application; the threats faced by web services, major attacks are discussed in elaborate de- tail. The existing technologies for implementing the concepts are also highlighted.


Web services involve combining several systems and re- sources. To provide an end-to-end security in such a dynamic environment requires the combination of several technologies. In 2012 a survey on the major issues concerning web service security was published [1]. The attacks on web services can range from denial of service to malicious code injection and session hijacking. Sindhu [2] has provided solutions for WS-Address spoofing and SOAP action spoofing with respect to a dynamic composition scenario. However such solutions should ne converted to APIs in order to extend the functionali- ty to XML as well. Azzam Mourad [3] has proposed a new approach to provide security to web services in a dynam- ic environment, during composition. They have used Aspect Oriented Programming (AOP) and BPEL (Business Process Execution Language) where in the security and the businesses are separated and composition is allowed to be modified dur- ing run time. Several security measures are to be considered while dealing with interoperability of web services. These have been discussed by a research paper of GE Energy [4]. The major security attacks that can happen to a web based application, particularly web services has been discussed by Ladan and the current technologies to provide security are also mentioned [5]. Wu, have proposed a security model for service-oriented multi-application architecture and it provides a comprehensive layer of security when the inte- grated systems are constructed [6]. WSDL files, which define the basic structure of the web service, suffer from tampering, scanning and other attacks. Mirtalebi [7] has proposed a model for ensuring the security of the WSDL files by encrypt- ing them. The main security issues related to Restful web ser- vices are analyzed and a secure XAuth mechanism has been proposed by Pan [10] for Restful WCF Services.


    Like any distributed application, web services also require major security mechanisms to ensure secure transfer of data. When sharing existing information or functionality through web services, it is well known that we do not depend on pro- gramming languages, architectures or systems. Due to this interoperable capability and cross platform access of web ser- vices, it demands a greater attention of security concepts. The basic security requirements of any web based application are Authentication, Authorization, Confidentiality, Integrity, Availability and Non-Repudiation.

    • Authentication: It is the process to identify the user. When we use this concept, we are trying to ensure the identity of the user and we verify the identity that the user claims to be.

    • Authorization: It is the process of giving permission to the user to do something. Authorization is often seen as both the introductory setting up of permissions by a sys- tem administrator and the checking of the permission val- ues that have already been set up when a user is getting access.

    • Confidentiality: In the world of information security, con- fidentiality is used to refer to the requirement for data in transit between two communicating parties not to be available to a third party, to avoid snooping. The broad approach is to use either a Virtual Private Network (VPN) or encryption.

    • Integrity: It means that if the information is tampered with, it can be detected. The process often relies on math- ematical algorithms known as hashing algorithms.

    • Availability: It requires that the resources and the services should be available to the authorized parties at all times. The common attack to the availability of data is the Deni- al of Service attack. It aims to use up all the resources of the service so that they are unavailable to the legitimate users.

    • Non-repudiation: The originator of a message cannot clam not to have sent the given message.

      The above security requirements are implemented in web ser- vices in the following ways:

      Authentication techniques: Basic authentication is used in almost all the applications. Before gaining functionality to the application, the user is requested a username and password. Both are validated. The main drawback of the implementation is that the credentials are propagated in a plain way from the client to the server. Any sniffer could read the sent packages over the network. Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML) is used to provide strong authentication and authori- zation tokens. SAML, developed by OASIS, is an open framework for sharing security information on the Internet through XML documents. The user requests a service from the service provider. The service provider requests and obtains an identity assertion from the identity provider. On the basis of this assertion, the service provider can make an access control decision in other words it can decide whether to perform some service for the connected user. Before delivering the identity assertion to the Service

      Fig. 1 SAML Architecture (Provided by Sun OPENSSO Enterprise)

      Provider, the identity provider may request some information from the user such as a user name and password.

      The digest authentication encrypts the password entered by the user, before sending to the server. Typically a hash func- tion is used such as SHA or MD5. The client makes an un- authenticated request to the Web service, and the server sends a response with a digest authentication challenge indicating that it supports digest authentication. The client generates a nonce and sends it to the service along with a timestamp, di- gest, and username. The digest is a cryptographic hash of the password, nonce, and timestamp. The server generates the hash itself from the password (retrieved from the service store), nonce and timestamp (from the message), and if the generated hash matches the hash in the request, the request is allowed. The advantage of digest authentication is it is re- sistant to replay attacks.

      Authentication can also be provided using certificates. When the client attempts to access a protected web service resource, it provides a certificate to the server which contains the cre- dentials as well as a unique private-public key pair. The server verifies the same. This mechanism must use HTTPS as there is no secure channel for communication.

      Kerberos token is a cross-platform authentication and single sign-on system. The Kerberos protocol provides mutual au- thentication between two entities relying on a shared secret (symmetric keys).

      Authorization techniques: XACML (eXtensible Access Con- trol Markup and SAML Language) are the two technologies that are used to ascertain authorization information. Using SAML, an authorization decision assertion involves making a decision about whether or not a principal can access a specific resource, given an authentication assertion and attribute asser-

      tion. According to a policy, the entities Policy Decision Point (PDP) and Policy Enforcement Point (PEP) make and enforce authorization decisions respectively. SAML provides a stand- ard way to represent a security token that can be passed across the multiple steps of a business process or transaction, from browser to portal to networks of web services, also a feature supported by OWSM. The authorization basically involves Role based Access Control (RBAC) and Context Based Ac- cess Control (CBAC). RBAC maps security management to an organizations structure. With RBAC, each user can be assigned privileges based on the role of the user in the organi- zation.

      Confidentiality Techniques: XML encryption is the technique used for implementing this feature of security management. It is used if information in a SOAP message must be kept confi- dential while it is sent over a multihop SOAP transaction. Ad- ditionally, if information in a SOAP message must be kept encrypted after the SOAP message has been processed by a web service, XML encryption is also useful. XML Encryption is a W3C recommendation. The encrypted data can be ex- pressed using XML or the portions of an XML document can be selectively encrypted. Algorithms like Triple-DES, AES are commonly used.

      Integrity Techniques: The WSDL file describes the functional- ity of the web service. When a service requester communi- cates with the UDDI registry, the WSDL forms the basis for selecting the web service, particularly during composition. If it is tampered, then it destroys the integrity of the web service. XML Signature may also be used for integrity and non repudi- ation of WSDL files so that a definition of a web service can be published and later trusted to not have been tampered with. It was developed by the W3C and the IETF. In a web service communication, data integrity may also be present at lower layers of the OSI stack. However when integrity is imple- mented only for SOAP communication, we cannot call it as persistent. The persistent integrity is useful where a document maybe composed of portions authored by different entities, in a workflow scenario. XML signature guarantees the integrity of certain portions of the document but allows the participants to edit other unsigned portions of the document. Web Services (WS)-Security, produced by OASIS, defines a set of SOAP header extensions for end-to-end SOAP messaging security. It supports message integrity and confidentiality by allowing communicating partners to exchange signed encrypted mes- sages in a Web Services environment.

      Non-Repudiation Techniques: WS-Security uses digital signa- tures in order to guarantee non-repudiation. The specification allows a variety of signature formats, encryption algorithms and multiple trust domains, and is open to various security token models, such as X.509 certificates, Kerberos tickets, SAML Assertions, and custom-defined tokens. It adds securi- ty features in the SOAP header and works in the application layer. The X.509 specification is fully extensible and is used to format the information in the digital certificate. A digital certificate typically includes identity information about the entity holding the corresponding private key, a serial number, expiry date and the public key.


    The threats faced by web services can be message level or service level. Service level threats can involve the threats faced by UDDI, WSDL and XML. The following are some of the major service level threats.

    • WSDL and UDDI attack: The service level information are available in the WSDL files and UDDI registry. An attacker can access any publicly available WSDL file and tamper with it. The attacks can be in the form of WSDL Scanning or WSDL Tampering. The former scans the WSDL file and exposes the operational information, ports, etc. The latter tampers with the data and can even gain access to confidential information. Protection against these threats is not easy with the typical methods like au- thentication and authorization.

    • Malicious Code Injection and Identity Spoofing: These attacks take place mostly in XML files. An attacker can inject malicious codes and spoil the functionality of the service. Identity spoofing attack occurs when a hacker takes off the identity of either the service requester or the service provider. In the first case, the attacker can com- pose a well-formed XML request message and post it to the service provider, causing the service provider to as- sume the response is sent to a valid service requester. In the second case the attacker will trick genuine service re- questers to post messages to the fake service provider. Such attacks cannot be detected easily.

    • XML Schema Tampering: An attacker can modify the XML schema and make it erroneous. Such threats end up with failures at the end points of the service providers.

    • Session Hijacking: An attacker can steal the session token of the user and gain unauthorized ccess to the resources provided. This leads to sending of false requests or replies and thus the session between the service requester and provider is said to be hijacked.

      The message level threats to the web services can be of the following types:

    • Message Injection or Alteration: Messages between the client and the server can be altered or new malicious mes- sages can be added. This can happen to XML files and can provide the hacker with many privileges.

    • Replay of Messages: An attacker captures a valid mes- sage and replays it later to gain sensitive information via unauthorized access to the services. Usually this is the initial step in hacking a web service wherein the hacker can hijack the session and tamper with the services. With the right tools, patterns can be detected more easily even if the same or similar payload is being sent across multi- ple mediums like HTTP, HTTPS, and SMTP or across different interfaces.

    • Message Confidentiality and Eavesdropping: Interception of messages is always a threat to web services. Tradition- al security mechanisms like VPN or SSL are not suffi- cient to secure the web services against such threats.


    Under the basic implementation of the security features in web services, XML Signature, XML Encryption, SAML have been discussed. The other major standards are covered in this section.

    • WS-Security: The protocol is currently officially called WSS and developed via committee in Oasis-Open.The standard defines how security tokens are contained in SOAP messages, the XML security specifications to en- crypt and sign the tokens. Tokens are attached to the mes- sages and timestamps are also inserted. Other parts of the SOAP message can also be encrypted and the methods are mentioned in the standard. The main features of the standard include WS-Policy, WS-Trust and WS-Privacy. The WS-Policy allows the organizations to specify the security requirements for their web services. WSDL bind- ing is used in order to attach the policy information to the web services. Ws-Trust defines how trust relationships are established. Trust can be either direct or brokered. In the case of brokered trust, a trust proxy is used to read the policy information and request the appropriate security token for enclosure in the SOAP message. WS-privacy explains how the privacy requirements can be included in the policy and the WS-Trust is used to evaluate the priva- cy claims encapsulated within the SOAP messages against the preferences of the user and the organization.

    • Security in Restful Web Services: The major security mechanisms in a web service based on REST are Client security and OAuth. Client security can provide the basic authentication and authorization features. Normally Basin HTTP Authentication and HTTP Digest Authentication are used. OAuth is a specification that defines secure au- thentication model on behalf of another user. OAuth in general is widely used in popular social Web sites in or- der to grant access to a user account and associated re- sources for a third party consumer (application). The con- sumer then usually uses RESTful Web Services to access the user data. OAuth 1 protocol is based on message sig- natures that are calculated using specific signature meth- ods. Signatures are quite complex and therefore are im- plemented in a separate module. Jersey provides the packages for both OAutp and 2. OAuth 2, in contrast with OAuth 1, is not a strictly defined protocol, rather a framework. OAuth 2 specification defines many exten- sion points and it is up to service providers to implement these details and document these implementations for the service consumers. Additionally, OAuth 2 defines more than one authorization flow. XAuth along with authenti- cation manager has been implemented for Restful WCF

      Services. Currently server side streaming technologies are used in order to counter Denial Of Service (DoS) attacks.

      Fig. 2 The web service security stack [18]

      TABLE 1




      SSL(Transport level security)

      Authentication, confidentiality, and secure key exchange.

      XML Encryption




      XML Signature

      Integrity, Authentication

      Kerberos, HTTP Digest



      Confidentiality, Authentication

      TABLE 2


      Web service layers

      Current threats and attacks

      Web services in transit

      In transit sniffing or spoofing, WS-Routing security threats, Replay attacks

      Web services engine

      Buffer overflow, XML parsing attacks, Denial of services

      Web services deployment

      Fault code leaks, Permission and access issues, Poor policies, Authernti- cation and Certification

      Web services user code

      WSDL probing, Bruteforce attacks, Content spoofing, Session tamper- ing, Information leakage, Authorization issues

      In order to handle the security concerns measures can be taken to ensure that the security framework is deployed well. The deployment analysis involves three broad divisions. In-transit, vendor-controlled and deployment shell. The In-Transit secu- rity involves provodong the security for the SOAP messages which are exchanged. We can use Secure Socket Layer (SSL) for secure communication as well as WS-Security for the ser- vices. IP security and access controls should be provided ef- fectively. Foe the deployment shell security, we need to ensure that the deployed services are secure enough in order to pre- vent the information leakage. Errors and exceptions should be handled well so that the attack will not find the loop holes which make the services more vulnerable. Auditing and log- ging helps to identify and take preventive measures against security breaches. A few guidelines can be followed in order to secure the service at a code level. They are as follows:-

      • Never trust a user input completely.

      • Do not echo the data supplied by the user.

      • Do not use the client-side scripting languages for val- idation [23]

    Within the web services, we can follow the additional guide- lines. Digital signatures can be incorporated into SOAP mes- sages. XML firewalls can be implemented. All the requests and responses should be encrypted with header information. Validations can be used to prevent Cross-Site Scriptong. Ex- ceptions should be handled cleanly and passwords and other important fields should be encrypted in order to prevent input parameter tampering. Measure should be taken to prevent at- tacks that come through HTTP requests.


    The current challenges involve security based on the end user, maintaining security while routing between multiple web ser- vices and the challenge of abstracting security from the under- lying network. The information or details of the end user might not be available to the web service. They will be availa- ble to the web site or any client that accesses the web service on behalf of the user. This challenge can be addressed by add- ing the information in the SOAP message itself. This might prevent the need for the user to re-authenticate every time when a SOAP request is sent. Single Sign-on and Federated trust come under this category. Web service routing indicates the traversal of SOAP messages over multiple hops before reaching the end point. While routing between the web ser- vices it is mandatory to maintain the confidentiality of the data from the SOAP intermediaries. Traditional security mecha- nisms work in the transport layer( SSL) whereas SOAP func- tions in the application layer. Hence, better techniques have to be developed in order to ensure the security in the SOAP gaps created by the intermediaries. In order to meet the challenges recently the software which is gaining popularity is Acunetix. Acunetix Web Vulnerability Scanner is a feature-packed solu- tion for detecting vulnerabilities and securing web applica- tions. The Web Services Security scanning tool will allow you to run an automated vulnerability assessment against a Web Service with a more accurate and improved version of the same scanning engine which till now assessed web appli- cations. Another new addition is the Web Services Security

    Editor which extends the functionality of the Web Services scanner by allowing deeper analysis of XML responses, WSDL structure, WSDL XML analysis, syntax highlighting for all coding languages, and regular expression searching.

    Threats are faced by databases as well in the SOA environ- ments. When a database application is exposed as a service or is simply accessed by a Web service, the security of the data- base relies entirely on the security of the applications directly accessing it. The exposing application should account for con- firming the requesters authorization to access the database. Additionally, the application must filter requests before for- warding them on to the database. Incoming requests may in- clude SQL injection attacks or other attempts to subvert the database or retrieve sensitive information. The application must also filter the data before providing it to the requester to prevent unintentional leakage.


While deploying a web service the major concern is to ensure the security of the resources being offered. As discussed in the paper, the distributed and autonomous nature of the web ser- vices has made it vulnerable to a wide variety of threats and attacks. The existing security practices will not be completely sufficient to cater the security requirements. Current trends indicate new attacks on WSDL and XML files which define the basic structure of web services. Due to the interoperable nature of the web services, maintaining security policies and checks against violations and message tampering is a potential issue. Hence it is important to include the security mecha- nisms in the initial stages itself and allow the co-operating services to follow a similar policy. We can hope that the emerging solutions and technologies will merge the gap be- tween the services and take the operations of the security fea- tures to the next level.


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