Developer coding using laptop showing API security

API Security 101: The Ultimate Guide

APIs, application programming interfaces, are driving forces in modern application development because they enable applications and services to communicate with each other. APIs provide a variety of functions that enable developers to more easily build applications that can share and extract data.

Companies are rapidly adopting APIs to improve platform integration, connectivity, and efficiency and to enable digital innovation projects. Research shows that the average number of APIs per company increased by 221% in 2021.

Unfortunately, over the last few years, API attacks have increased massively, and security concerns continue to impede innovations.

What’s worse, according to Gartner, API attacks will keep growing. They’ve already emerged as the most common type of attack in 2022. Therefore, it’s important to adopt security measures that will keep your APIs safe.

What is an API attack?

An API attack is malicious usage or manipulation of an API. In API attacks, cybercriminals look for business logic gaps they can exploit to access personal data, take over accounts, or perform other fraudulent activities.

What Is API security and why is it important?

API security is a set of strategies and procedures aimed at protecting an organization against API vulnerabilities and attacks.

APIs process and transfer sensitive data and other organizations’ critical assets. And they are now a primary target for attackers, hence the recent increase in the number of API attacks.

That’s why an effective API security strategy is a critical part of the application development lifecycle. It is the only way organizations running APIs can ensure those data conduits are secure and trustworthy.

A secure API improves the integrity of data by ensuring the content is not tampered with and available to only users, applications, and servers who have proper authentication and authorization to access it. API security techniques also help mitigate API vulnerabilities that attackers can exploit.

When is the API vulnerable?

Your API is vulnerable if:

  • The API host’s purpose is unclear, and you can’t tell which version is running, what data is collected and processed, or who should have access (for example, the general public, internal employees, and partners)
  • There is no documentation, or the documentation that exists is outdated.
  • Older API versions are still in use, and they haven’t been patched.
  • Integrated services inventory is either missing or outdated.
  • The API contains a business logic flaw that lets bad actors access accounts or data they shouldn’t be able to reach.

What are some common API attacks?

API attacks are extremely different from other cyberattacks and are harder to spot. This new approach is why you need to understand the most common API attacks, how they work and how to prevent them.

BOLA attack

This most common form of attack happens when a bad actor changes parameters across a sequence of API calls to request data that person is not authorized to have. For example, nefarious users might authenticate using one UserID, for example, and then enumerate UserIDs in subsequent API calls to pull back account information they’re not entitled to access.

Preventive measures:

Look for API tracking that can retain information over time about what different users in the system are doing. BOLA attacks can be very “low and slow,” drawn out over days or weeks, so you need API tracking that can store large amounts of data and apply AI to detect attack patterns in near real time.

Improper assets management attack

This type of attack happens if there are undocumented APIs running (“shadow APIs”) or older APIs that were developed, used, and then forgotten without being removed or replaced with newer more secure versions (“zombie APIs”). Undocumented APIs present a risk because they’re running outside the processes and tooling meant to manage APIs, such as API gateways. You can’t protect what you don’t know about, so you need your inventory to be complete, even with developers have left something undocumented. Older APIs are unpatched and often use older libraries. They are also undocumented and can remain undetected for a long time.

Preventive measures:

Set up a proper inventory management system that includes all the API endpoints, their versions, uses, and the environment and networks they are reachable on.

Always check to ensure that the API needs to be in production in the first place, it’s not an outdated version, there’s no sensitive data exposed and that data flows as expected throughout the application.

Insufficient logging & monitoring

API logs contain personal information that attackers can exploit. Logging and monitoring functions provide security teams with raw data to establish the usual user behavior patterns. When an attack happens, the threat can be easily detected by identifying unusual patterns.

Insufficient monitoring and logging results in untraceable user behavior patterns, thereby allowing threat actors to compromise the system and stay undetected for a long time.

Preventive measures:

Always have a consistent logging and monitoring plan so you have enough data to use as a baseline for normal behavior. That way you can quickly detect attacks and respond to incidents in real-time. Also, ensure that any data that goes into the logs are monitored and sanitized.

What are API security best practices?

Here’s a list of API best practices to help you improve your API security strategy:

  • Train employees and security teams on the nature of API attacks. Lack of knowledge and expertise is the biggest obstacle in API security. Your security team needs to understand how cybercriminals propagate API attacks and different call/response pairs so they can better harden APIs. Use the OWASP API Top 10 list as a starting point for your education efforts.
  • Adopt an effective API security strategy throughout the lifecycle of the APIs.
  • Turn on logging and monitoring and use the data to detect patterns of malicious activities and stop them in real-time.
  • Reduce the risk of sensitive data being exposed. Ensure that APIs return only as much data as is required to complete their task. In addition, implement data filtering, data access limits, and monitoring.
  • Document and manage your APIs so you’re aware of all the existing APIs in your organization and how they are built and integrated to secure and manage them effectively.
  • Have a retirement plan for old APIs and remove or patch those that are no longer in use.
  • Invest in software specifically designed for detecting API call manipulations. Traditional solutions cannot detect the subtle probing associated with API reconnaissance and attack traffic. API security tools using Machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI)-based can help identify bad actors.
Unmanaged and unsecured APIs create vulnerabilities that could lead to major #security breaches. It's critical to adopt a robust #APIsecurity strategy across the entire lifecycle of the APIs. #respectdataClick to Tweet

Conclusion

Organizations are rapidly adopting APIs to improve connectivity and provide easy access to their applications and services. But unmanaged and unsecured APIs create vulnerabilities that could lead to major security breaches. Therefore, it’s critical to adopt a robust API security strategy across the entire lifecycle of the APIs.

 

VP of Marketing at Salt Security