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“Mobile App Security: Always Keep the Back Door Locked” – Our Take

Trying to create your own homegrown set of proxy services is expensive and risky

Today’s lead article on Ars Technica talks about the importance of protecting back-end resources in the context of mobile applications. The article rightly stresses the importance of this security, talks about the uptake in OAuth and cites API Gateway solutions as a popular option in this space.

Mobile App SecurityHowever, the article clearly misstates the capabilities of an API Management solution founded on an API Gateway. I am going to assume that the author only had exposure to API Gateways second hand or through a competitor of Layer 7. Here are the misconceptions propagated by the article, along with some corrections:

“These API gateway services can be prohibitively expensive for small-scale applications…  ‘You can replicate the API gateway by creating a set of proxy services in their data center in an application container in their DMZ.’”

Trying to create your own homegrown set of proxy services is expensive and risky. The Layer 7 API Management Suite’s Gateway technology includes 10 years of functional enrichment and optimization. Such robustness cannot be hacked together on the fly.

“An API gateway still runs on the notion that you have to be careful not to block what might be legitimate traffic. So that could cause some openness – some attacks might slip through using Web application firewall evasion techniques.”

An API Gateway is not a typical web application firewall. Layer 7’s Gateway (evident in the company’s name) has full access to all layers of the data stream and can apply protections at any of these layers.

“Of course, if they can retrieve a developer key, attackers can slip past API gateways until their activity is noticed…  That’s why it’s important to encrypt any data stored on the device, including developer keys[.]”

API keys are not treated as security tokens by an API Gateway. The term “API key” is equivalent to a “database key”, not a security key, so don’t mistake it for a robust access control mechanism. It is mainly an identification mechanism. It is a gross misunderstanding to equate API developer keys with a standard access control cryptographic mechanism like PKI public/private keys.

“But keys have other ways of getting into the wild besides breaking into the application code.”

Right, so you should not rely on these keys for access control. The good news is that the API Management Suite’s Portal/Gateway combination makes it easier to revoke and reissue developer keys.

“For enterprise applications, an API gateway isn’t always enough – users need to get access to content on servers inside the firewall that may not be easily exposed through a Web API.”

And this is where the API Gateway really adds value. The Layer 7 API Management Suite allows companies to turn those backend interfaces from their native protocols into REST APIs or other formats that are friendly to mobile devices.

So, thanks to Ars Technica for flagging up this important aspect of mobile security and here’s hoping that this corrected information is included in the next article.

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More Stories By Matt McLarty

Matt McLarty is focused on customer success, providing implementation best practices and architectural guidance to ensure clients receive the maximum benefit from Layer 7’s products. Matt brings over 15 years of technology leadership to Layer 7, with a particular focus on enterprise architecture, strategy and integration. Prior to joining Layer 7, Matt led the global IBM technical sales organization responsible for application integration software and solutions, notably helping to grow the SOA Gateway business substantially over a five-year period. Before joining IBM, Matt worked as a Senior Director and Enterprise Architect focused on SOA, electronic payments and identity management. Follow him on Twitter at @MattMcLartyBC.