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How to guard against unexpected values from external APIs?

Lets say you are coding a function that takes input from an external API MyAPI.

That external API MyAPI has a contract that states it will return a string or a number.

Is it recommended to guard against things like nullundefinedboolean, etc. even though it's not part of the API of MyAPI? In particular, since you have no control over that API you cannot make the guarantee through something like static type analysis so it's better to be safe than sorry?

I'm thinking in relation to the Robustness Principle.

Let's compare the two scenarios and try to come to a conclusion.

Scenario 1 Our application assumes the external API will behave as per the agreement.

Scenario 2 Our application assumes the external API can misbehave, hence add precautions.

In general, there is a chance for any API or software to violate the agreements; may be due to a bug or unexpected conditions. Even an API might be having issues in the internal systems resulting in unexpected results.

If our program is written assuming the external API will adhere to the agreements and avoid adding any precautions; who will be the party facing the issues? It will be us, the ones who has written integration code.

For example, the null values that you have picked. Say, as per the API agreement the response should have not-null values; but if it is suddenly violated our program will result in NPEs.

So, I believe it will be better to make sure your application has some additional code to address unexpected scenarios.

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You should never trust the inputs to your software, regardless of source. Not only validating the types is important, but also ranges of input and the business logic as well. Per a comment, this is well described by OWASP

Failing to do so will at best leave you with garbage data that you have to later clean up, but at worst you'll leave an opportunity for malicious exploits if that upstream service gets compromised in some fashion (q.v. the Target hack). The range of problems in between includes getting your application in an unrecoverable state.


From the comments I can see that perhaps my answer could use a bit of expansion.

By "never trust the inputs", I simply mean that you can't assume that you'll always receive valid and trustworthy information from upstream or downstream systems, and therefore you should always sanitize that input to the best of your ability, or reject it.

One argument surfaced in the comments I'll address by way of example. While yes, you have to trust your OS to some degree, it's not unreasonable to, for example, reject the results of a random number generator if you ask it for a number between 1 and 10 and it responds with "bob".

Similarly, in the case of the OP, you should definitely ensure your application is only accepting valid input from the upstream service. What you do when it's not OK is up to you, and depends a great deal on the actual business function that you're trying to accomplish, but minimally you'd log it for later debugging and otherwise ensure that your application doesn't go into an unrecoverable or insecure state.

While you can never know every possible input someone/something might give you, you certainly can limit what's allowable based on the business requirements and do some form of input whitelisting based on that.

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