What is API security?
API security refers to methods that prevent malicious attacks on application program interfaces (API). The purpose of APIs is to connect services and transfer data. Broken APIs are a cause of major data breaches. They can be easily hacked and give cybercriminals access to sensitive financial, medical, and personal data.
Multiple types of data can be transferred via APIs, therefore any implementation of security for APIs needs to be specific to the APIs and the data being transferred.
How API security works
API security is a two-step process:
Understand the data
The first step to protecting your API from hackers is by understanding the type of data you are transferring. Is it financial, medical or personal? Knowing this information will help you identify which vulnerabilities need to be protected against and what steps need to be taken for securing your APIs.
Implement security measures
The second step in protecting your APIs from hackers is implementing specific security measures that address these hacks and vulnerabilities. This may include:
- Using transport layer encryption (TLS)
- Using authentication mechanisms with OAuth tokens
- Adding an additional level of authorization on top of RESTful calls such as JSON Web Tokens (JWT)
Why you should care about API security
API security has become more important as online attacks have increased, with attackers targeting these interfaces for their high level of exposure and the large volume of sensitive information they contain.
In 2020 there were over 15 billion incidents involving compromised credentials which led to a significant number (and percentage) of major data breaches last year.
If your company doesn’t take steps to protect your APIs from cybercriminals it could lead to serious consequences including:
- Customer loss
- Regulatory penalties
- Financial damage
The key API security guidelines
API security guidelines help API providers to set up a system that allows API consumers, API developers and API owner to collaborate and make API security an integral part of API design, deployment and management.
These are the API security guidelines for each role in order to use or develop an API service:
- API providers must provide authentication credentials as well as encryption methods. Authentication is only required once; however, it’s essential when communicating with any third-party server even if it has been previously trusted.
- API consumers should be able to request data from multiple servers at one time without having to supply any additional information other than their username and password. This means they can switch between accounts seamlessly without being negatively affected by account lockouts.
- API developers should have access to a sandboxed version of the API where they could freely develop API without interfering with any other API or production environment.
An example API security checklist
In order to protect your API, you should follow these steps:
- Check your API documentation to make sure it’s up-to-date
- Make sure you have a plan in place for what happens if your API is breached
- Always keep an eye on the logs of your server and check them regularly
- Use SSL encryption when transmitting data over the internet so that it can’t be intercepted by a third party
- Store sensitive information like passwords, credit card numbers, or other personal information in encrypted form using strong algorithms
- Use authentication methods such as OAuth to ensure that only authorized people are accessing the API
How to stop attacks on API security
Monitor API access and traffic patterns to spot suspicious user behavior and apply sophisticated algorithms and machine learning to accurately stop bad bots.
With an API management solution in place, you enable an easier security structure and the capability to meet complex security requirements to protect your APIs.
Other popular methods include:
- API gateway. It will allow you to authenticate traffic and control how your APIs are used.
- Bulletproof defense. Identify weak spots of your cyber-defense strategy that could leave your APIs exposed.
- Data encryption. Encrypt your data and require signatures to ensure that only authorized parties can access and utilize your data.
- Tokens. Control access to your services by using tokens assigned to trusted users.
- Throttling. Determine how often your API can be used. More calls on an API may indicate misuse. Set up rules for throttling to protect your service from suspicious traffic spikes and DDOS attacks.
How to protect your APIs from hackers
There are a number of ways companies can implement security for their API, but the most common solutions include using SSL encryption and firewall technology.
Steps for securing an API
- Ensure that there is a method in place to detect unauthorized access attempts on all servers (both cloud or physical). This way you’ll be able to spot intrusions as they happen so you can stop them before any harm is done.
- Use two-factor authentication where possible – this will cut down on the risk of being hacked because even if someone has obtained your password, it won’t do them much good without also having possession of your phone or device from which the login was made.
- Have two different firewalls set up – one for the API and another to protect sensitive data.
- Have your company’s own secure VPN installed on all devices, such as laptops or smartphones, that are used to access the internet through an available public Wi-Fi network in order to avoid any potential security vulnerabilities associated with these networks.
API security vulnerabilities
There are many security vulnerabilities that can occur in APIs. The below list includes some but by no means all of the potential API security risks – be sure you’re aware of them as they come up. Companies who fail to address these issues may find themselves subject to a data breach
Software Bugs and Incompatibility
Software bugs and unresolved incompatibility issues can be one of the most damaging and potentially costly effects on API security. They can allow hackers to access sensitive data stored in a database by exploiting programming errors in an application’s code, or find out information about how that software works.
In order to ensure a company’s data is safe, it’s important to keep the API as private and secure as possible. This can be done by limiting who has access to the information that flows through an API.
Software Applications Creating Backdoors
Many software applications are designed for ease of use – this often means they contain features that create security vulnerabilities in your databases or API because they bypass some security protections put into place.
For example, many chat clients allow you to share files with other users without authentication required – meaning anyone could download sensitive documents if they know how to exploit these backdoors.
Authentication is the process of proving that you are who you say you are, and it’s critical to API security because if a hacker can’t prove they’re an authorized user, then they can’t do any damage to your data.
Unfortunately, many authentication methods for APIs are flawed: users have too much freedom in creating passwords (for example repeating a word over and over), using weak or predictable answers like “123456” or their name as a password.
Many people overlook third parties as possible points for an API vulnerability; however, you’re responsible for any vulnerability on your server created by a party you’ve contracted with. If this company or developer discovers a potential backdoor, they may not tell you out of fear that other customers will abandon them if they know there was an issue.
Unauthorized Data Sharing and Exfiltration
Data can be accessed or shared by third parties who are not authorized to access the API. This is a common problem when there are multiple people with login credentials that have unrestricted permissions for accessing data and code, which may lead to unauthorized disclosure of sensitive information.
Insecure Coding Practices
API security starts in development – where vulnerable coding practices allow hackers open doors into your system. These include: making it too easy for someone to guess passwords, using weak encryption, storing critical secrets like database keys on disk instead of encrypting them securely.
Security Patches and Updates
Another common problem is security patches and updates not being applied, leaving your API vulnerable to malicious attacks.
Out-of-date software versions often have known vulnerabilities that can be exploited by hackers if they are able to find out about the vulnerability before a patch has been issued. In some cases, an update may even introduce new problems which themselves need fixing – so it’s important for companies to stay on top of their inventory of updated applications with all necessary fixes in place.
Another area where many people make mistakes when securing APIs is authentication weaknesses such as using weak passwords or hardcoded credentials. As well as ensuring strong password requirements, enforcing two-factor authentication will make it harder for hackers to get into systems.
No Restrictions on API Access
One of the most common mistakes made is granting unrestricted API access, which allows people who are not authorized and authenticated to view sensitive data in your system. This includes giving ‘read’ and ‘write’ privileges without any restrictions or even allowing anonymous (unauthenticated) users to have full access, providing a hacker with unlimited power over key business logic such as order processing, inventory management and customer details.
It’s important that you restrict rights based on an individual user’s role – e.g., only give certain staff members the right permissions necessary for their job position so they can’t abuse them.
It may be tempting to outsource development overseas where labor costs are a fraction of those in other countries, but you have to be sure that whoever is developing your APIs knows what they’re doing. Most developers do not receive any formal training on security and may not consider it when building out their code.
Soap API and REST API
What is SOAP API
SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) was first created for Microsoft in 1998 after the company found XML data needed an easier way of communicating between different systems – this allowed them all access information stored on one another without having any problems syncing up or getting confused about who had more power over which files.
What is REST API
REST APIs are based on an architecture that defines how information should be transmitted via requests to one or more servers. The server provides access to resources over any type of network connection – whether it’s local area networks (LANs), wide-area networks (WANs), Wi-Fi hotspots, Bluetooth connections, mobile phone internet connections etc.
Soap API vs REST API
Both API types have their pros and cons. SOAP API is more robust than REST API because it can handle a greater number of calls, while REST API has the advantage that changes to data are easier to implement – so if you make an update or change your database schema, then all you need to do is push out new code which captures the changes you have made.
SOAP API is more complex than REST API because of the XML wrapper, which requires a lot of processing and code to implement – this can be off-putting for novice programmers; meanwhile, REST API has no such requirement so it’s easier to use.
Frequently Asked Questions about API security
What are the most common API security threats?
Some of the common API security threats are users with unrestricted access to your system, developers who are not trained in API security, lack of policies and procedures for what should happen if the API is breached, and lack of communication between the development team and IT staff.
What is the difference between a WAF and API security solutions?
The difference between a WAF and API security solution is the usage of one or the other. A WAF is used mainly for website security, but an API security solution can be used for both websites and APIs.
How does API security compare to web application security?
Developers often confuse API security with web application security. API security is a way to better protect the data that’s being transmitted back and forth between an API server and client, while web application security refers to protecting from vulnerabilities in websites themselves.
How are API security solutions used for microservices?
When API security solutions are used for microservices, they’re usually deployed as a service mesh that provides API monitoring and enforcement.
API monitoring includes API tracing, API analytics, and API testing. API enforcement combines authentication with authorization to make sure that only authorized people are accessing the API – this could be done through OAuth or a third-party security solution like CASB (Cloud Access Security Broker).
How does API Authentication work?
You can authenticate APIs in any number of ways. The most straightforward is to require any user to submit their credentials with each request, but this method becomes problematic for APIs that need to be accessed by mobile or web applications because it’s difficult and time-consuming for users to enter their credentials every time they want to make a request.
You can also use API keys, which are long strings of random letters and numbers that identify the user who’s making the requests, much like an ID card. This method is useful if you’re concerned about your API being abused by people who don’t have access to your system or network.
Can you use an API security solution for security testing?
An API security solution can also be used for API penetration testing. They commonly involve fuzzing and other forms of automated attack to find vulnerabilities.
You should keep in mind that API’s are just interfaces, not applications so you need to test them differently from the more traditional web application security testing or WAF ruleset.
What are some common API security tools?
Some of the common API security tools are firewalls, antivirus software, and API endpoint protection. These API security tools work by blocking unauthorized requests, detecting malware and viruses in emails or files downloaded from the internet, and preventing infections on servers.
What are some common systems that use APIs and how do they protect their APIs?
Some API-based systems are Google Maps, Instagram, and Facebook.
Most API providers use API management solutions to protect their APIs. API gateways also provide a layer of security by enforcing the rules that govern API access and usage, which can ensure that API consumers are following HIPAA guidelines or other industry regulations for data privacy.
What are some of the benefits of API management?
These benefits include being able to manage and monitor APIs from a central location, understanding what’s going on with your APIs by looking at detailed reporting, and automating API changes with manual approval.
How can an API management platform help developers?
An API management platform helps developers by making it easy for them to develop APIs without worrying about intricacies like documentation or monitoring. It can also help make their work more efficient by giving them access to libraries that provide default responses for common requests.
What is an API gateway?
An API gateway is an intermediary which routes calls from client applications invoking an API towards other services. It mediates between multiple APIs, and can balance load, provide security, and enforce access policies. An API gateway proxies requests from clients to APIs back to the appropriate application by mapping each method to a specific process.
How to use an API gateway to improve API security?
You can use an API gateway to improve API security by reducing the risk of a DDoS attack, improving the performance of the application and providing an API management platform.
The most important benefit of using an API gateway for API protection is that it handles all forms of web application attacks. It also provides insights into how your API is being used and helps you balance APIs with different metrics. An API gateway also protects an organization from data loss or leakage by maintaining their data handling requirements in accordance with industry regulations and guidelines.
How does API firewalling work?
Firewalls monitor network traffic and block unauthorized requests. That way, if the API is being used by an attacker or spoofed by a hacker, it will be blocked from reaching the server. Firewalls also provide antivirus protection to the server.
How to implement API authentication?
There are many different ways to go about implementing API authentication. One method is to use OAuth, which will allow you to only allow authorized people to access the API.
What is rate limiting in API security?
Rate limiting allows you to control how many requests users are allowed per second or minute which in turn helps prevent DDoS attacks from flooding your API with too much traffic at once. If a user exceeds their rate limit they will be blocked for some time period until they have settled back within their limits again (e.g., if after 60 seconds they attempted 100 calls). It’s important not only to set up these thresholds but also monitor them so that you know when it’s needed to increase them – this could happen during periods of high API usage or as API trends change.
What is an API security token?
A security token is a small piece of data that API gateway generates and sends to the API caller as part of each API request. It can be used for authenticating the API user or passing authorization information about who they are, what their permissions are on your system, etc.
What is API throttling?
API throttling is a technique API providers use to manage API usage. API gateways typically implement throttling on the server-side and restrict API calls per minute or hour depending on what you want to enforce. The idea behind this service is that if there are certain limits in place, your API will stay healthy and not be overloaded with requests from high-volume users.
The difference between an API Gateway and API management platform?
API management platforms bridge the gap between APIs and the applications that use them. API gateways also act as intermediaries that route calls from clients to APIs, but they typically don’t do much else.
An API Management Platform has functionality for managing APIs, while an API Gateway does not have any specific features dedicated towards APIs – it’s simply a gateway or proxy to another system, f.ex. a web app.
What is API access control?
API access control is the process of gaining access to an API. Most API access controls are in the form of tokens and/or API keys, which you can get by authenticating your application or user.
There are different types of API access controls:
- IP address-based
What is Web API?
Web API is a term that has been used to refer to API services in general and more specifically REST API. It is also a programming interface from the web server, which allows developers to access information on the website’s database or send requests for specific data from other servers including images, videos, etc.
How important is internal API security?
Internal API security is just as important as external API security and it’s a process that should be implemented to validate the authenticity of each API request before granting access. API authentication and authorization are essential with any type of API service, whether public or private.
How to perform API security testing?
API security testing is a process of identifying and correcting vulnerabilities in API, to make sure that there are no data leaks or other breaches. API security testing can be performed manually by making requests to the API with different input parameters (e.g., using curl) or automatically with specialist tools.
Talk to our team of cyber-security experts today to discover more about our pioneering approach to bot management to help you detect cyber-attacks on your APIs and defend against them.