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Why API security is essential

Because data-driven enterprises rely heavily on their software application architecture, application programming interfaces (APIs) play a significant role. APIs have revolutionized the way web applications are used, as they help pipeline communication between multiple services. Developers can integrate any modern technology into their architecture by using APIs, which are very useful for adding features required by a customer

By their very nature, APIs are vulnerable to exposing application logic and sensitive data such as personally identifiable information (PII), making them an easy target for attackers. Often available over public networks (accessible from anywhere), APIs are usually well-documented and can be quickly reversed by malicious actors. They are also susceptible to denial of service (DDoS) incidents.

The most significant data leaks are faulty, vulnerable or hacked APIs, which can expose medical, financial and personal data to the general public. Additionally, various attacks can occur if an API is not properly secured, making API security a critical aspect for today's data-driven businesses.

What is API?

APIs are mechanisms that enable two software components to communicate with each other using a set of definitions and protocols. For example, the weather bureau's software system contains daily weather data. The weather app on your phone talks to this system via APIs and shows you daily weather updates on your phone.

Why API security is essential

API development has grown astronomically in recent years, fueled by digital transformation and its central role in mobile apps and IoT development. Such growth and the variety of potential attacks make API security very necessary.

As microservices and serverless architectures have become more prevalent, attacks include bypassing the client-side application to interfere with application performance for other users or to breach private information. Additionally, broken, exposed or hacked APIs may lead to back-end system breaches.

In its API Security and Management report [subscription required], Gartner predicts that API abuses will move from infrequent to the most frequent attack vector by 2023, resulting in data breaches for enterprise web applications, and by 2025, more than 50% of data. theft will be due to insecure APIs.

API security vs. application security

API security focuses on securing this application layer and addressing what can happen if a malicious hacker interacts with the API directly. API security is also about implementing strategies and procedures to mitigate vulnerabilities and security threats.

When sensitive data is transferred through an API, a protected API can guarantee the confidentiality of the message by making it available to apps, users, and servers with appropriate permissions. It also ensures the integrity of the content by verifying that the information has not been altered after delivery.

Critical API vulnerabilities and attacks

APIs have quickly established themselves as the method of choice for building modern applications, especially for mobile devices and the internet of things (IoT). However, given the ever-changing methods of application development and pressures to innovate, some companies still need to fully understand the potential risks of making their APIs available to the public. Before public deployment, businesses need to be aware of these common security mistakes:

Authentication errors: Many APIs reject authentication status requests from a real user. An attacker can replicate API requests by exploiting such flaws in a variety of ways, including session hijacking and account aggregation.

Lack of encryption: Many APIs lack strong layers of encryption between the API client and the server. Due to such flaws, attackers can intercept unencrypted or poorly protected API transactions, steal sensitive data or change the transaction details.

Flawed endpoint security: As most IoT devices and microservice tools are designed to communicate with the server through an API channel, hackers try to gain control over them through IoT endpoints. Doing so can often cause the API command to be sequenced, resulting in a data breach.

Current challenges in API security

According to Yannick Bedard, head of penetration testing, IBM security X-Force Red, one of the current challenges in API security is testing them for safety, as it can be challenging to understand intended logic flows and to be tested if not clearly defined.

“In a web application, these logical flows are intuitive using the Web UI, but in an API, detailing these workflows can be more difficult,” Bedard told VentureBeat. "This can lead to security testing of vulnerabilities that could be exploited by attackers."

Bedard said that as the pipeline of APIs becomes larger and more complex, questions often arise about which service is responsible for which aspect of security and at what point the data is considered "clean."

"It's common for services to natively trust that data coming from other APIs is clean, except that it's not properly sanitized," he said.

Bernard says an example of this was the initial discovery of the Log4J vulnerability, where most companies focused primarily on what they had directly on the internet.

“Malicious data would eventually flow to backend APIs, sometimes behind many other services. These APIs, in turn, would be vulnerable and could provide an attacker with an initial path into the organization,” he said.

"The main challenge is discovery, because many security teams are not sure how many APIs they have," said Sandy Carielli, principal analyst at Forrester.

Carielli said that many teams unknowingly deploy rogue APIs or may have unmaintained APIs that are still publicly accessible, which can lead to a number of security hazards.

"API specifications can be out of date, and you can't protect what you don't know you have," she said. “Start by understanding what controls you already have in your environment to secure APIs, and then identify and address the gaps. Most importantly, make sure to address API discovery and inventory.”

Best practices to enhance API security

The strength of API security depends entirely on how the data architecture enforces authentication and authorization policies. Thanks to technological advances such as cloud services, API gateways and integration platforms now allow API providers to secure their APIs in unique ways. The technology stack you choose to build your APIs on affects how you secure them.

A number of approaches can be used to effectively protect your system against API intruders:

API Gateway: An API gateway is the foundation of an API security framework since it makes it easy to develop, maintain, monitor and secure APIs. An API gateway can protect against various threats and provide API monitoring, logging and rate limiting. It can also automate security token validation and traffic restriction based on IP addresses and other data.

Web application firewalls: A web application firewall or WAF acts as a middle layer between public traffic and an API gateway or application. WAFs can offer additional protection against threat actors, such as bots, by providing malicious bot detection, the ability to identify attack signatures, and additional IP information. WAFs can be beneficial in blocking bad traffic before it even reaches your gateway.

Security applications: Standalone security products that support features such as real-time protection, static code and vulnerability scanning, built-in time checking, and security fuzzing can also be included within the security architecture.

Security in code: Security code is a form of protection implemented internally in the API or application. However, the resources required to ensure that all security measures are properly implemented in your API code can be difficult to apply consistently across all of your API portfolios.

The future of API security

When it comes to APIs, zero trust is relevant for both clients and servers," he said. “An API-driven application can have a huge number of microservices, making it difficult for security leaders to track their development and security impact. Adopting zero-trust principles ensures that each microservice communicates with least privilege, preventing the use of open ports and enabling authentication and authorization across all APIs".

Likewise, Palanisamy says, as zero-trust security architectures gain momentum, API security will be one of the key areas of focus, especially with SaaS and other cloud services used today.

“The key is to look at this with an enterprise-wide approach. API security cannot be solved by focusing on a few applications,” he said.