API security is top of mind for most digital organizations, and with good reason. API-related cybersecurity incidents are on the rise, leaving many organizations scrambling to clean up the mess, reclaim their data, and protect their reputation.
Whether you have a mature API security strategy or are early in your journey, it’s crucial to review, revise, and tighten your defenses.
The Importance of API Security
As cybercriminals get more innovative (and opportunistic), they turn their sights to low-hanging fruit in hopes of capturing their bounty. With organizations increasingly tapping APIs to build innovative applications faster, and these critical elements remain largely unprotected, APIs have obvious appeal.
APIs are woven through our personal and professional lives so seamlessly that the average end user isn’t even aware of their existence. These unsung heroes dramatically change the attack surface, however, with one exploited vulnerability swiftly landing data or system access in the wrong hands.
Consider some high-profile API security incidents that recently made headlines:
- In December 2021, Twitter announced that criminals had exploited an API vulnerability, leading to more than 5 million users’ data being sold on the market in 2022.
- At the start of 2022, scheduling platform FlexBooker shared that nearly 4 million of their users’ data had been stolen, including partial billing details. This was a result of an AWS data breach.
- In May 2022, the Texas Department of Insurance revealed that a web application code glitch exposed the data of nearly 2 million people.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. API security compromises occur daily, and most don’t reach the front page. So, how can you ensure your APIs are secure, and you don’t become a statistic?
Crucial API Security Best Practices
Imagine pulling into a parking lot, placing your wallet on the dashboard, and walking away from your car with the doors left unlocked.
If that sounds absurd, it’s because it is. And, without securing your APIs, that’s effectively what you’re doing. You’re leaving your valuables unattended and simply hoping for the best.
Take these best practices as a security checklist to ensure robust protection:
APIs transfer a lot of valuable data, and encrypting this data during transmission is critical to protection. Add another layer of defense by enforcing signatures to verify that the end users who receive, decrypt, or modify this data are the right ones.
In a digital world, it’s paramount to authenticate the identity of end users. Granting access or accepting requests from false end users can have dire consequences. There are a few methods to verify users who are calling your APIs:
- An API key assigns a unique identifier configured for each API and known by the API gateway
- HTTP authentication requires a username and password, making it a fundamental and easy-to-implement approach
- Identity Provider (IdP) server-generated tokens such as OAuth 2
At a minimum, always use an API key or basic authentication for access, but consider OAuth 2 for another layer of security.
You can’t build protection around something you can’t see or are unaware of. A modern security strategy must focus on identifying vulnerabilities to mitigate risk in increasingly complex environments.
Workflows to continually track and update the usage and status of operating systems, applications, and services will help to create a blueprint of the overall security landscape of an organization. Ensure this list includes drivers, network components, and APIs. Understand how all of these elements communicate with one another and identify potential weak points. A sniffer will help identify and track data leaks and alert you to security issues.
Use an API gateway
An API gateway is a clever ally in the quest for robust API security. The gateway will enforce all API traffic, authenticating, controlling, and analyzing all activity and calls made to APIs.
Tokens take classic user authentication to the next level. By assigning tokens to identities, you can verify their authenticity and control access to resources. To increase token-based security, consider biometric validation. Coupling token-based and biometric authentication will enhance API security.
This approach may be cumbersome for some use cases, but consider leveraging tokens and biometrics – including facial or fingerprint scans – in higher-risk environments.
Define quotas and throttling
API security breaches can occur when bad actors flood the system with many calls. An abundance of calls to an API may indicate disingenuous activity or a programming mistake that triggers an endless loop. It’s not worth the risk to find out.
Defining quotas and throttling thresholds will protect APIs from traffic spikes or denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, which can overload and crash the system. Malicious traffic accounts for more than 2% of all API traffic, which organizations can easily reduce with the proper measures.
Deploy purpose-built API security platforms
The challenge with API attacks is that the attacks themselves have changed – not just the target of attacks. Existing security stacks cannot detect the reconnaissance activity of a bad actor learning a company’s APIs to attack those APIs.
Just as endpoints needed new protections with the disappearance of the network perimeter, and firewalls needed to provide application-level protection, security tooling built to identify the low-and-slow behavior associated with API attacks is a crucial element of a holistic API security strategy.
Security is never a set-it-and-forget-it aspect of doing business. As the business landscape evolves, so does the scope of attack vectors. Developers, organizations, and end users should never take API security for granted, even when provided by trusted sources and used within secure networks. Cybercriminals are cunning, and it only takes one minor vulnerability for a massive exploit to occur.
Continually observe, test, track, and repeat to ensure robust API security and peace of mind.
About the Author: Stefanie Shank. Having spent her career in various capacities and industries under the “high tech” umbrella, Stefanie is passionate about the trends, challenges, solutions, and stories of existing and emerging technologies. A storyteller at heart, she considers herself one of the lucky ones: someone who gets to make a living doing what she loves. Stefanie is a regular writer at Bora.