Why is Everyone Concerned with API Security?

by Stoplight on March 27, 2023 8 min read

As business and tech leaders, we know how important data and technology have become for the success of operations. APIs play an essential role in this area by enabling new ways to access data and improve workflows. But, with that comes the need to pay particular attention to API security. That’s why it’s important for you to understand what API security is, how it affects your business, and which measures should be taken when dealing with it. In this article, we will walk through everything you need to know about API security, including both the challenges and best practices for keeping your APIs safe.

What is API Security?

APIs, or “Application Programming Interfaces,” allow developers to connect their applications, services, and operating systems with other programs. They make it easier for smooth data transactions and efficient integration.

During this process, API security is needed to protect data being passed back and forth between systems. Security measures can involve the use of firewalls, encryption, and authentication to ensure that no malicious activities take place when using the API. When executed properly, effective API security will help maintain online safety as well as protect crucial personal information from unauthorized access.

As far back as the 1990s, vulnerabilities in APIs were exploited to gain credentials that opened up entire networks for further exploitation. As soon as engineers began to realize that these connections increased the threat surface of potential attackers, API security became a priority alongside network and application security.

The implications of a lack of secure APIs

The fallout from an insecure API can be catastrophic. Without sufficient API security in place, malicious actors can exploit vulnerabilities to gain access to sensitive information such as passwords, financial data, and personal details.

Since API connects the systems of the business, this could lead to devastating breaches across the entire organization. Put plainly: a hacker that exploits a poorly protected API can soon have access and even control over an entire network.

Types of API Security Attacks

API security attacks come in many shapes and sizes, but the three biggest types are Injection Attacks, Cross Site Scripting (XSS), and Broken Authentication and Authorization.

Injection attacks

An injection attack is a type of API security attack in which malicious code is injected into the system. As a result, the attacker can gain access to sensitive information stored within the server.

SQL injection is one of the most common examples, in which an attacker uses pieces of Structured Query Language (SQL) to gain access to a database. These types of attacks are especially concerning because they can exploit poorly constructed APIs and bypass authentication measures.

Cross-Site Scripting (XSS)

Cross-site scripting (XSS) is a type of API security attack in which malicious code is injected into a website or application. This type of attack allows malicious actors to execute code on the targeted web page, access sensitive information from users such as passwords and financial data, and even redirect users to malicious sites.

XSS attacks are most effective when APIs are not properly validated and secured.

Broken Authentication and Authorization

Broken Authentication and Authorization is a major security threat faced by API engineers and end-users. This type of attack occurs when an attacker exploits any vulnerability in the authentication or authorization process in place to gain unauthorized access, often resulting in serious data leakage.

For example, if user profiles are not properly secured with strong passwords, an attacker could easily gain access to those accounts and exploit further vulnerabilities for sensitive data. If the API is passing this information between applications and that data is intercepted, the entire application is vulnerable to attack and takeover.

Challenges in Securing APIs

Despite many engineers and organizations being aware of the types of API Security attacks, there are challenges that come with protecting APIs. Below are some of the most common challenges that a business should address.

Authentication & Authorization

Authentication ensures that the user is who they claim to be, while authorization verifies the rights of a user. The challenges of authentication are that the business cannot control every activity of the user.

Attackers can target the users and penetrate the system through phishing attempts, malicious emails, or hacking of a public Wi-Fi connection. For larger organizations, this is especially a challenge as there are more employees that are exposed.

Authorization is another roadblock because businesses must ensure that each user has the right level of access to the systems. This requires constant monitoring and review of users’ privileges, which can be time-consuming and difficult. For more tips on auth best practices, go here.

Data Protection and Privacy Concerns

Due to their open nature and ability to connect with multiple systems, APIs present new challenges on this topic. For example, a successful attack on one system can use the API connection to intercept important data from another system.

Sometimes the API is connected to a third-party organization, which requires the business to set up extra security parameters. It’s a challenge to tightly secure each system while making sure the systems are able to talk to each other. That challenge becomes even more complex when an organization is not in control of the security posture of a third-party API.

Defending Against Injection Attacks

Injection attacks are some of the most difficult threats to defend against when securing APIs. Defending against such threats requires careful monitoring and evaluation of all API components—from authentication protocols to security patches—to effectively detect and eliminate any potential risks.

In addition, organizations must be aware of common injection attack patterns in order to properly configure firewalls and other security tools. Defending against injection attacks entails regular updates and testing that not all businesses have the resources to perform.

Best Practices for Securing APIs

Despite the risk of attack on an API, there are a number of straightforward things that organizations and engineers can do to protect their code. Consider the following best practices for securing APIs.

Set up access control policies

Organizations should set up access control policies to limit the actions that users can take when accessing APIs. Access control policies are a fundamental part of an API security strategy and should be implemented early in the development process.

These policies should include criteria such as user roles, authentication credentials, and resource access rights. As the business grows, these policies should be updated as needed.

Conduct vulnerability assessments & penetration tests

It’s recommended to conduct vulnerability assessments and penetration testing on a regular basis. Vulnerability assessments are used to identify any existing vulnerabilities and provide recommendations on how to mitigate them.

Penetration testing is an effective way to uncover potential security flaws in the API, including weaknesses that might be exploited by attackers. These two activities work together to help organizations stay ahead of attackers and defend their APIs.

Incorporate encryption technologies

Incorporating encryption technologies into the design of your APIs is a smart and effective way to help ensure their security. By encrypting data, organizations can prevent hackers from accessing sensitive information, protect user privacy, and satisfy client requirements.

As an added layer of protection, consider implementing token-based authentication paired with SSL/TLS encryption technologies. This twofold approach can provide an additional level of assurance that APIs are secure without imposing too much overhead on developers or users.

Implement authentication protocols

Implementing authentication protocols is a key part of securing APIs. Authentication protocols should be designed to restrict access only to authorized users and prevent unauthorized access.

Organizations can use various methods, such as two-factor authentication, biometrics, or even blockchain-based authorization processes, to increase the level of security for their APIs. By following these best practices, organizations can protect their data and resources while still providing users with an easy-to-use API experience.

Analyze logs for suspicious activity

It’s important to analyze logs for any suspicious activity. Logs should be regularly monitored and reviewed to detect any unauthorized access attempts or other malicious activity. In addition, organizations should use analytics technologies to analyze user behavior and identify potential security threats.

By analyzing logs, organizations can proactively address potential issues before they become major problems.

Disable unnecessary features or functionality

Organizations should take the time to review and disable any unnecessary features or functionality in their APIs. This can help reduce complexity, improve performance, and ensure that only essential services are exposed to potential attackers.

By following these best practices for securing APIs, organizations can protect their data and resources while still providing users with an easy-to-use API experience. With the right approach, businesses can confidently keep their APIs secure from malicious actors and other threats.

In the End

The best way to protect against cyber threats is by proactively addressing potential issues before they become major problems. By following these tips, organizations can ensure their APIs are secure while providing users with a safe and enjoyable experience. With the right approach, organizations can confidently keep their APIs secure.

If your organization or engineering team needs help implementing the principles discussed in this article, Stoplight.io offers tools to make it easier for developers to create beautiful RESTful APIs quickly and securely without sacrificing quality or speed of development time. Stoplight also provides an API security testing platform to help organizations analyze and secure their APIs.

Learn more about Stoplight’s security practices or discover how Stoplight can streamline your API development process without sacrificing the security and the peace of mind your business – and your users – deserve.

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