Best Practices for API Security

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In today’s digital landscape, application programming interfaces (APIs) have become crucial to software development and digital transformation. However, they also present a significant security risk, as malicious people target them to gain unauthorized access to sensitive data. 

Securing APIs has become increasingly challenging due to their growing number and complexity. As a result, API security best practices continue to evolve, allowing organizations to enhance their API security posture. 

This article will delve into the best practices for API security to help protect your APIs and organization.

APIs: A Unique Security Challenge

Research shows that APIs are widely recognized as essential for organizations’ digital transformation, with 98% of enterprise leaders acknowledging their importance. APIs enable collaboration with partners and facilitate faster product and service delivery within internal development teams. However, the widespread use of APIs exposes organizations to inherent security risks. Unlike the earlier era when data access was obscured through proprietary interfaces, today’s APIs uncover digital assets directly through standardized, open protocols. Organizations often publish their APIs, inadvertently providing hackers with the address of sensitive data and a roadmap for unauthorized access.

Why Is API Security Important?

API security encompasses all security practices related to program-based APIs, ensuring the protection of data and information stored within the APIs. Attacks targeting APIs exploit vulnerabilities or utilize reverse engineering techniques. The severity of an API vulnerability depends on the nature of an organization’s APIs and the data they represent. 

Even if an API connects to a seemingly unimportant data source, any breach can potentially escalate into a serious cyber incident. Once an attacker infiltrates an organization through an unprotected API, lateral movement across the network becomes possible, increasing the risk of breaching more sensitive data. Additionally, attackers can inject malicious code into applications, disrupt operations through denial of service attacks, or gain unauthorized access to critical data.

8 Industry-Proven API Security Best Practices

To address the critical need for API security, it is crucial to approach it systematically and follow industry-proven best practices. Let’s explore each focus area in more detail.

  1. Test APIs

APIs play a prominent role in software development, connecting applications with services and data sources. However, developers may inadvertently introduce vulnerabilities by neglecting API security and testing. Waiting until an application is in production is too late to address security concerns. Instead, it is essential to integrate API security and testing early and continuously throughout the software development lifecycle (SDLC). API security policies should become integral to the DevOps workflow and the continuous integration/continuous deployment (CI/CD) pipeline. Developers must know security policies and test APIs for vulnerabilities during the coding and release phases.

Successful adoption of this practice requires appropriate tooling and organizational alignment. Developers need the right tools to integrate API security and testing into the SDLC effectively. Moreover, a collaboration between development, testing, and operations teams is crucial to prioritize API security and make it a natural part of the development lifecycle.

  1. Take account of all APIs

To secure APIs effectively, it is imperative to have visibility into their existence. Unfortunately, security managers and architects often discover previously unknown APIs in their environments. Even with API gateways or web application firewalls (WAFs), organizations have limited visibility, leading to the realization that certain APIs need to be discovered or overlooked. Therefore, it is a best practice to proactively find and inventory all APIs, including internal and external ones. This practice, known as API discovery, helps identify and address rogue, shadow, and zombie APIs. An API discovery solution should be able to identify various types of APIs, such as HTTP, REST, and JSON-RPC.

  1. Expose API misconfigurations

Once APIs are correctly accounted for, the next step is to evaluate them for misconfigurations. Misconfigured networks can introduce vulnerabilities and serve as entry points for cyber attacks. Organizations must scan various sources to detect vulnerabilities, including log files, configuration files, and historical traffic replays. Classifying APIs based on data types and identifying those accessing sensitive information is also essential. This understanding helps maintain compliance and implement security measures.

  1. Check API traffic for any deviation

Runtime protection is crucial to keep APIs secure during operation. It involves monitoring APIs in production, tracking known vulnerabilities, and detecting anomalies that could indicate an ongoing attack. Real-time monitoring of API usage enables the identification of suspicious behavior and potential security breaches. Advanced tools that leverage artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) can evaluate traffic against established access control settings. Additionally, runtime protection tools can track known API vulnerabilities and alert administrators to the need for patching or replacing specific APIs. API security should be integrated into broader threat detection and response processes.

  1. Require user and device authentication

API authentication is essential to identify and authorize users and devices. Both entity-level and user-level authentication are crucial for comprehensive security. Entity-level authentication involves API keys, which serve as numeric identifiers for requesting entities or devices. API security solutions validate these keys to grant or deny access to the API. User authentication, on the other hand, typically requires tokens in API calls to validate user identity. Standards such as OAuth 2.0, OpenID Connect, and JSON web tokens facilitate secure user authentication in API traffic.

  1. Use API Authorization for added security

Authentication grants access to the API, while authorization determines what users, groups, and roles can do within the API. API authorization tools enable the definition of access control rules or grant types, ensuring that only authorized individuals can access specific API resources. Following the principle of least privilege (POLP) helps prevent unauthorized access and potential data breaches.

  1. Control API requests

API rate limiting is a crucial layer of access control that prevents abuse and ensures the availability of APIs. Organizations can prevent malicious and non-malicious consequences by controlling the number of requests that can be made to an API. Token-based authentication systems are commonly used to implement API rate limiting. Configuring resource and rate limiting properly is essential to prevent one business from monopolizing API resources and adversely affecting others.

  1. Stay updated with API security risks

To effectively protect APIs, developers must stay informed about the latest security techniques and threats. Subscribing to Google alerts for API and cybersecurity-related keywords can help developers stay updated on industry websites and blogs. Developers can configure their APIs to mitigate potential attacks. Trustworthy sources like the OWASP list of top 10 vulnerabilities can provide valuable insights to stay current on API security practices.

Keep Your APIs Secure

APIs play a pivotal role in the enterprise software ecosystem and digital transformation. However, their open nature makes them an attractive target for hackers. By implementing API security best practices, organizations can significantly mitigate API-related risks. These best practices encompass the complete API picture, starting from the SDLC and extending to API discovery, posture management, runtime protection, and access control. Embracing these practices enables organizations to establish a robust API security posture and safeguard their valuable data and applications.

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