Application programming interface (API) security best practices play a frontline role in protecting digital assets. Enabling seamless data exchanges between applications and devices, APIs represent a critical cog in an increasingly interconnected digital landscape.
Of course, hackers and cybercriminals also know this. So, APIs have become one of the most common attack vectors that malicious actors use when targeting organizations.
Unsecured APIs pose greater risks — but enterprises must be highly mindful of security concerns even when their APIs are protected. This guide explores common API security threats, the importance of implementing effective security measures and best practices for closing off API vulnerabilities.
Threats Associated With Unsecured APIs
Unsecured APIs lack the tools and features needed to protect against hacks and intrusions. This leaves them vulnerable to many different types of attacks. Misconfigurations, outdated software and inadequate access or authentication controls all create API vulnerabilities that can lead to data breaches.
APIs are especially vulnerable to:
- Distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks
- Unauthorized access and data breaches
- Man in the middle (MitM) attacks
- Broken access controls
- Injection attacks
Let’s look more closely at each of these threats.
DDoS attacks attempt to overwhelm the API server with massive amounts of illegitimate traffic or requests. This renders the server unavailable to actual users, effectively taking it offline. For businesses depending on uninterrupted online presence, successful DDoS attacks can quickly become very costly.
Many major companies and organizations have suffered DDoS attacks. Consider, for example, the Amazon Web Services attack in February 2020. The attack targeted vulnerabilities in third-party servers and magnified incoming web traffic by an incredible 56–70 times. Attackers sustained the DDoS assault for three days, resulting in massive, costly service disruptions.
Unauthorized Access and Data Breaches
Broken user authentication can grant access to unauthorized users, who may then obtain sensitive data or critical functionality information. While data breaches can occur in many different ways, they often originate when a malicious actor gains unauthorized access to a system or network.
Like DDoS attacks, data breaches can be extremely costly. One notorious example occurred in 2017, when credit reporting bureau Equifax was targeted in a major attack. A subsequent investigation found Equifax failed to take key security precautions; the company had to pay up to $700 million in restitution to clients affected by the breach.
As the name implies, man-in-the-middle attacks occur when an unauthorized third party intercepts user communications. MitM attacks allow bad actors to tamper with or otherwise alter communications or the data they contain. They also open the door to:
- Identity spoofing
- Unauthorized capture of access or authentication credentials
- DDoS attacks
- Session hijacking and data exposure
Broken Access Controls
Even when API security features require user authentication, they’re not always configured to cross-check authentications with user permissions. This creates both insider threats and other API vulnerabilities, because sensitive data is available to users who shouldn’t be able to access it.
An injection attack occurs when a party targets API security weaknesses with malicious data. The data essentially fools the API into performing unintended actions or displaying sensitive or private information.
One infamous injection attack targeted the 7-11 convenience store chain on multiple occasions in 2007-2008. Hackers obtained 130 million credit card numbers as a result, leading to hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. Though the perpetrators were caught, no business wants to face this kind of damage to their reputation.
The Importance of API Security
API security holds critical importance in the contemporary digital landscape. Interconnected applications and devices facilitate many advanced functions routinely used in enterprise computing. As a result, APIs are highly active elements of the modern internet. According to one widely cited statistic, APIs account for 83% of all web traffic.
Given this fact, businesses should remember that there are some important differences between API security and general application security. Generalized approaches fail to account for the unique cybersecurity demands associated with APIs.
General Network Security vs. API Security
Common features of general application security include:
- Castle-and-Moat Structures. General approaches to network security safeguard digital assets (the “castle”) with discrete access points around its perimeter (the “moat”). The moat controls and limits user access, with users who gain entry being treated as non-threats.
- Static Protocols. In general networks, user requests mainly use static rather than dynamic protocols. This feature makes web application firewalls (WAFs) a feasible security option.
- A Focus on Web Browsers. Most users access standard networks through web browsers. As a result, the firewall can quickly identify bots and other potentially malicious inconsistencies.
Meanwhile, API security differs in several regards:
- No Moats and a “Castle With Lots of Openings.” Contemporary applications feature multiple API endpoints, each of which may use its own distinct set of protocols. This breaks the castle-and-moat model, leaving the “castle” potentially exposed at each endpoint.
- Changing Request Formats. Unlike the static protocols that define the majority of incoming requests to general applications, APIs face constant change. Every time an API is updated or changed, its frontline security features must also undergo reconfiguration.
- Fewer Web Browsers. API service requests more often use mobile applications, native applications or other forms of software. They originate from web browsers less often, limiting the effectiveness of WAF protections.
Organizations should conduct an API-focused application assessment to ensure their security measures are appropriate for their prevailing digital environments.
API security assessments account for the distinctive features and needs of application programming interfaces. Such assessments — and the implemented protections they induce — are critical data gatekeepers. They also guard against the dire consequences that can result from the exploitation of API vulnerabilities.
API Security Best Practices
API-focused approaches to digital asset protection include a specific set of best practices. These best practices generally add multiple API security layers that impede and neutralize the efforts of malicious actors.
Application security experts emphasize the particular value of these best practices during API development:
- Authentication and Authorization Organizations should comprehensively and distinctively identify all devices and users that interact with APIs. Ensure all such users and devices are properly authenticated and authorized.
- Access Controls. Cybersecurity experts recommend applying the so-called “zero-trust security model” to APIs. This involves WAFs, API gateways, rate limits and the enhanced safety facilitated by MFA.
- Encryption. By encrypting network traffic — including requests and responses involving APIs — organizations can reduce the likelihood of sensitive data falling into the wrong hands.
- Data Validation. API security is sometimes configured to assume that associated data has been validated. Avoid this. Instead, introduce customized data validation protocols that use debugging tools to reduce errors.
- Careful Data-Sharing Configurations. Sometimes, the responses sent by APIs contain more data than required to fulfill the request. Eliminate the unnecessary distribution of potentially sensitive data by ensuring that responses only contain absolutely essential information.
- API Registries. Creating an API registry allows your organization to note all the defining characteristics of active APIs in a dedicated repository. This makes it easier to safeguard data, organizing it in a centralized structure.
- Artificial Intelligence (AI). AI is quickly becoming a valuable cybersecurity asset. Comprehensive approaches to API security can leverage AI as a tool for behavioral and traffic analysis, detecting threats and anomalies that may signal an impending attack.
Safeguarding API Keys
API keys regulate identification- and verification-based access from incoming traffic. However, they aren’t as secure as some alternate approaches, such as authentication tokens.
If you use these keys, your API security protocols should avoid embedding them in files or coding. Instead, place them outside the API’s source tree or safeguard them with an external cybersecurity service.
Organizations should also proactively delete API keys no longer in use. Regenerating keys can also safeguard against attacks relying on the interception and unauthorized use of established credentials.
Regular API Security Auditing
It’s not enough to rely solely on security validation conducted during development. Complete approaches to API security involve regular, ongoing tests of active APIs to ensure they meet necessary standards.
Pairing regular security auditing with an incident response strategy heightens the impact of your cybersecurity efforts. Prompt and preemptive action is critical to protect your digital assets and can avert costly security failures.
Safeguarding the Gateway to the Digital World: A Call to Action for API Security
API security is highly complex, with its own set of unique demands and safety considerations. It’s also essential in a digital environment that’s increasingly dominated by cross-application and cross-device interactions.
As the internet continues to evolve, APIs will likely become an even more dominant element of the landscape. This, in turn, will make them a more pressing cybersecurity issue as bad actors target them with increasing frequency and intensity.
Businesses seeking comprehensive and advanced API security solutions should partner with proven experts who have specialized experience with application programming interfaces. Growth Acceleration Partners (GAP) offers precisely this expertise, as evidenced by our large and growing portfolio of success stories and partnerships.
Schedule a consultation today to discuss your organization’s unique API security needs.