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The Vulnerability of AJAX Applications

When it comes to emerging web technologies, AJAX is leading the charge as one of the most dynamic tool sets on the development market.  Short for Asynchronous Javascript and XML, AJAX is attracting the attention of developers and businesses around the world.  Unknown to some, AJAX isn’t a programming technology like HTML or PHP, yet a collection of technologies that provide a robust facility for developing powerful web-based applications.  The power of AJAX is seen in many applications today including Google Maps and Yahoo!  mail.

What Makes AJAX So Different?

The purpose AJAX is to enhance speed, interactivity and usability.  The combination of technologies provide a more feature-rich, user-friendly experience.  Instead of loading the requested page at the start of the session, an AJAX engine scripted in Javascript is loaded.  This engine acts a middlemen between the user and the web page, enabling communication between the client and server.  The end result of this interaction is noticed almost instantly.  When making a request to an AJAX page, you may see individual elements of the page update before your eyes (asynchronously) rather than waiting for the page to load completely.

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The AJAX Disadvantage

AJAX is a very powerful weapon but one must be aware of the security vulnerabilities that exist.  Some developers have the misconception that AJAX applications offer tighter security because it is believed that the server-side script can’t be accessed without the rendered user interface, which is simply the AJAX-based page.  Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth.  The mere factor of increased interactivity within the application results in increased text, XML and HMTL network traffic.  This in turn, could lead to the exposure of back-end applications that may have not vulnerable otherwise.  Without adequate server-side protection, it could also give unauthenticated users the ability to manipulate privilege configurations.

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Another AJAX vulnerability is associated with the process it utilizes to formulate server requests.  Its engine uses Javascript to capture user commands and convert them into function calls.  These function calls are transmitted to the server in plaintext, making them visible to savvy eavesdroppers.  This could allow an intruder to easily access database fields that contain user login credentials and other critical variables that can be manipulated for malicious gain.  With this information, a hacker can victimize AJAX functions all without directly creating specific HTTP requests to the server.  Coupled with the known vulnerabilities of Javascript, AJAX applications are susceptible to attacks like cross site scripting and similar threats that plague scripts created by other development technologies.

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While the evolution of web technologies has enabled applications to enjoy more responsive, interactive, efficient functionality, they also increase the vulnerabilities developers and businesses face on a daily basis.  The growing prevalence of AJAX applications has considerably broadened the threat window, essentially giving hackers a greater opportunity to compromise sensitive data and thieve invaluable assets.  For this reason, developers must stop living under a false sense of security and take every measure possible to ensure that their AJAX applications are completely secure.

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