How and why you should secure APIs

[ This article was originally published here ]

This blog was written by an independent guest blogger.

APIs are a crucial tool in today’s business environment. Allowing applications to interact and exchange data and services means that companies can provide an ever-greater range of features and functionalities to their clients quickly and easily. So, it is no wonder that a quarter of businesses report that APIs account for at least 10% of their total revenue – a number that will only increase in coming years.

But for all their benefits, APIs also create security concerns for organizations. In one survey of API users, 91% reported an API-related security incident. Unfortunately, API security efforts within many organizations are simply not sufficient, exposing the company and its clients to attack and loss of sensitive data. 

Every business that uses APIs, indeed every business even thinking about using APIs, should have a solid API security strategy in place. This article reviews API vulnerabilities and outlines steps organizations should take to secure their APIs.

The importance of APIs

APIs provide numerous benefits for both businesses and their customers. At its most basic level, an API is simply a tool that allows an application to communicate with external applications and data sources. Developers can leverage these connections to create new applications, functionalities, and analytical tools, speeding the pace of business innovation and constantly improving user experience.

APIs facilitate everything from online payment systems and banking to travel aggregator services, social media, and media streaming services. They are also an important part of the rapidly expanding cryptocurrency world. 

Crypto developers use APIs to build decentralized applications (DApps) on blockchains. APIs also interact with the smart contracts that control everything from transactions to the formation of decentralized autonomous organizations (blockchain governance structures known colloquially as DAOs).

APIs also ease data sharing among corporate applications, reducing the need for repetitive and wasteful data entry. And they are an essential part of automating many business functions. And in a business environment that increasingly includes remote workers, they help businesses build effective collaboration tools to ensure that their teams continue to work well, even when virtual.

Businesses can also use APIs for advanced competitive intelligence programs. Not only can they simplify the aggregation of competitive data from a range of sources, but they are integral in building effective data analytics and display tools. 

They can even be used to continuously track changes to your competitors’ websites so you can always be on top of the latest innovations in your industry (e.g., with tools like Visualping).  

API security vulnerabilities

Because APIs are such a dominant part of the business landscape, cyber attackers have targeted them with growing frequency. Gartner predicted that API attacks would be the most common attack vector this year, and that prediction is rapidly proving true.

Some of the world’s largest and most sophisticated companies have suffered widely publicized data breaches resulting from API attacks. And as businesses have painfully learned, hackers have many different ways to attack APIs.

Targeting code vulnerabilities

As with any software, APIs are only as good as their underlying code. Poor coding of APIs creates inherent vulnerabilities that hackers are only too happy to exploit.

DDoS attacks

Distributed denial of service attacks, which attempt to render APIs completely unavailable to users by overwhelming them with traffic, are rapidly increasing in frequency. One reason is the increase in e-commerce in recent years. DDoS attacks can prevent access to inventories by adding stock to carts that they then never check out (denial of inventory attack).

Failed authentication and access control policies

It is crucial for organizations to strictly control API access and require strong authentication. Company API security policies should include role-based access control, least privilege, and zero trust policies to limit opportunities for hackers to interfere with APIs using compromised credentials. These policies will also help restrict how far a successful hacker can get within company systems using compromised credentials, especially if companies strictly limit granting wide-ranging privileges to users.

Man-in-the-Middle (MitM) attacks 

Hackers can insert themselves between users and APIs by intercepting and changing the communications between them. Using MitM attacks, hackers can gain access to sensitive user accounts and information, which they can use to exfiltrate company data. The danger of MitM attacks increases when companies do not apply transport layer security (TLS) in their APIs.

Securing your APIs

So what steps do businesses need to take to have the best security possible when using APIs? 

Build an API inventory

The first step is to know what APIs you have and how you use them. A complete API inventory, including whether you have multiple versions of a given API, allows you to minimize your overall attack surface by eliminating unused or outdated APIs. An API inventory also helps you prioritize your security efforts, directing resources towards your most critical systems.

Create effective API security policies

API vulnerabilities start well before a hacker ever enters the picture. Unfortunately, many companies don’t adequately protect their API assets because they don’t have API security policies in place, or if they do, those policies are ineffective. Organizations must apply strong security policies to their API usage and routinely enforce and update those policies.

Use strong authentication methods and encryption

In addition to having policies that limit who can access your APIs, you need to verify the identity of the people and services accessing them. Authentication methods such as API key or OAuth authentication harden your APIs against attacks and reduce your attack surface.

Limit data exposure

The less data transferred through an API, the less there is for an attacker to intercept or exfiltrate. Therefore, keep data sharing across an API to what is absolutely necessary. Not only do you minimize potential breach issues, but the organization will also be in a better position concerning compliance issues.

Conclusion

APIs will only continue to grow in popularity and utility. And they will also continue to be popular attack targets. So, make sure you are taking all the necessary steps to secure your APIs against attackers. 

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