RESTful API Security Principles

This is an excerpt from the “API Security” book I am working on. It explains how high level security design principles can be applied to RESTful APIs. Hope you find it interesting!

Since RESTful API is an information system we can apply generic security design principles to the design and implementation processes. In this section we’ll review key factors of information security together with main security design principles and some extra principles applicable to our domain.

Key Factors of Information Security — CIA

Confidentiality, integrity and availability also known as CIA triad (or AIC triad to avoid confusion with the Central Intelligence Agency) are three key factors used for high level security design. These factor are not directly related to the computer security, they are known from other security related domains (like military) and actually been used thousands of years ago.


Confidentiality is a set of rules that limit access to the information. It means data must be available for authorized users only, and protected from unintended recipients during transit, processing or at rest.


Integrity is the assurance that the information is trustworthy and accurate. It ensures that data is protected from intentional and unintesional alterations, modifications, or deletions. Important feature is reliable detection of those unwanted changes, if they happen at any stage of data lifecycle.


Availability is a guarantee of reliable access to the information by authorized people. This factor involves not only security aspect of the system, which still is very important. It also impose availability requirements to the infrastructure and application levels, combined with appropriate engineering processes in the organization.

Main Principles Explained

Three key factors are good and right, but there are too high level and difficult to use directly when working on API security. We can use them to produce some security design principles applicable to information systems in general, and to RESTful APIs in particular.

Overview of the main principles is based on a widely cited paper “The Protection of Information in Computer Systems” by J. H. Saltzer and M. D. Schroeder (1975).

Economy of Mechanism

Keep design and implementation of the system as simple as possible. Complex solutions are difficult to inspect and improve, they are more error-prone. From the security standpoint minimalism is a good thing. This is also true in (almost) any other area of information systems development and usage.

Fail-safe defaults

Access to any resource (like API endpoint) should be denied by default. Access granted only in case of specific permission. This approach represents conservative design where protection scheme identifies situations when access should be granted. The alternative, when protection scheme identifies conditions when access should be restricted, is dangerous because any mistake in configuration or implementation leaves system vulnerable and it’ll be most likely unnoticed. Similar type of mistake with fail-safe defaults approach will lead to access refusal, this is a safe situation and it’ll be noticed by the user immediately.

Access to all resources of a system should always be validated. It means, for RESTful APIs, that every endpoint must be equipped with an authorization mechanism. This principle brings security considerations to a system-wide level.

Open Design

Security design should not be a secret. It should be based on a well defined security standards and protocols. In this case it’s relatively easy to keep small passwords and keys as a secret. Also this approach, where security design or algorithm is separated from protection keys, allows many people to review and contribute to this design without risk of being allowed to access the system.

Least Privilege

Every user of the system should operate with minimal permissions required to the job. This approach limits the damage caused by an accident or error related to the specific user. For example, business analyst granted with read-only access to the banking system, can not initiate bank transfer even if this user account will be compromised.

Psychological Acceptability

Security implementation should protect a system but not hamper users of the system. For RESTful APIs, where typical user is the software engineer, it’s imprtant to make sure that API and it’s security architecture is well documented and easy to understand and use.

Minimize Attack Surface Area

Every system resource or functionality adds certain amount of risk to the overall picture. This principle guides to minimization of points that can be exploited by malicious users. This is similar to the least privilege principle. For example, RESTful API which needs to provide callback API endpoints to 3rd parties, needs to issues permission keys or tokens with a limited scope. This minimizes potential attack surface area and damage in case of security breach related to this 3rd party.

Defense in Depth

Multiple layers of control make it harder to exploit a system. It means that application of security mechanisms affecting different aspect of the system make s it much harder to exploit. For example, SSH access to the server may require specific private key. In addition, we can limit SSH access to the server to several known IP addresses, this reduces probability of unauthorized access to the protected resource.

Don’t trust services

Third party services or systems are often utilized by the developers. It’s important to treat these services as unsafe by default and implement all relevant security measures. For example, RESTful API implementation can use external partner’s service to retrieve some data. This data need to be validated and verified. Even if this seems like unnecessary step, it’ll ensure system security in case of breach related to this third party service.

Fail Securely

All systems, including RESTful APIs, are often fail to process transactions due to incorrect input or other reasons. This principle require that any failure inside the system should not overcome security mechanisms. Implementation logic should deny access in case of failure. This is also stated by the fail-safe defaults principle.

Fix security issues correctly

Once a security issue has been identified, it is important to fix it in a right way. It means developers and security experts need to understand root cause of the issue, create a test for it, and fix with a minimal impact to the system. Once fix is done the system should be tested in all supported environments and on all platforms.

Originally published at on April 4, 2017.

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