Why API Security Should Be Your Top Priority

By Stefanie Shank

When it comes to cybersecurity, it’s impossible to overlook APIs in your strategy. Often viewed as the building blocks of digital transformation, APIs play a pivotal role in modern organizations’ digital landscape.

Of course, cybersecurity is a broad-reaching term, leaving security teams holding the reins when it comes to prioritization and execution. Read on to learn why API security should be your top priority to keep your company, data, and end users safe.

The Importance – and Vulnerability – of APIs

The API management market is projected to more than triple in size by 2027, a staggering number if you consider how ubiquitous APIs are in the modern era. Virtually every digital business process relies on an API at some stage, be it mobile experience, communication between applications, or enabling fundamental business processes, organizations would be unable to cater to their and their customers’ needs without them.

As more applications come to market, enabling both useful and mission-critical processes, the growth of cyber risk to APIs has grown exponentially. In 2021, Gartner predicted that API attacks would be the most prolific risk for data breaches, a concern proving accurate as the year nears a close.

Modern Times, Urgent Needs

Not only popular amongst companies, APIs have also become an attractive target for cybercriminals. According to a recent report, the API landscape across organizations grew 221% in the previous 12-month period, but security risks were not one-for-one. The reality is much more serious than that.

Amongst survey respondents, 95% of companies reported an API security incident in the same period. API traffic rose 321%, while API attacks grew by an alarming 681%.

These numbers are serious, but outcomes are not guaranteed. An attack does not mean a successful breach, so organizations do not need to consider regressing to an era where they are not dependent on API functionality. (Spoiler alert: that’s an impossible notion in the digital era.) Instead, modern businesses must ensure APIs are developed and implemented with security in mind to prevent nefarious activity proactively.

Common API Vulnerabilities

To mitigate risk, it’s crucial to understand where the vulnerabilities lie. There are a few commonly-targeted elements of APIs that are easily addressed:

Authentication

Weak authentication is an all-too-common risk and one that is easy to mitigate. When authentication is weak (or, in some cases, non-existent), cybercriminals can gain access to user sessions or accounts to steal data or perform unauthorized transitions. This is often a result of weak passwords, lockout thresholds set too high, or reliance on single API keys as a means of authentication.

To mitigate these risks, organizations should enforce complex passwords and leverage multi-factor authentication for an additional layer of security.

Broken Object Level Authentication (BOLA)

Cybercriminals leverage the IDs of objects used in API requests to gain access to information. Without checks to verify the identity or ownership of these objects, bad actors can disclose, modify, or delete information or even take over entire accounts.

It is recommended to use unpredictable or otherwise random values for these IDs or to consider obscuring them altogether. You can also add a layer of authentication for these values by incorporating a check that the user is able to access the resources.

Injections

When an API links directly to SQL, OS commands, or Javascript queries, bad actors can exploit injection flaws. Criminals can use a variety of approaches, including SQL, Javascript, OS command lines, and NoSQL, to bypass security and perform malicious tasks.

To protect from injection attacks, leverage automated security solutions that identify unexpected scripts, code injections, or other suspicious client-side behavior. You can also validate data via a library, ensuring only pre-determined values are allowed.

Data Exposure

At times, APIs allow far too much data to be transmitted to the client application. In this case, excessive information can be transmitted to end users, leaving a major vulnerability to the exposure of sensitive data. When this data is exposed, the compromise can have detrimental results, particularly if you are subject to privacy regulations.

To start, ensure you filter data at the application level rather than on the client side, and be sure you’re only providing data that is strictly necessary for the request. Evaluate and control the use cases for data sharing and plug any holes.

Misconfigurations

API interaction and configuration is a complex environment, and misconfigurations are an easy yet risky part of the API security equation. Between API specifications and related infrastructure layers, organizations are at risk due to missing patches, convoluted error messages, lack of data encryption (including during transmission), and unsecured cloud storage.

There are a few key elements to consider to prevent security issues due to misconfigurations. Consider rate limiting to prevent DDoS attacks and test APIs for vulnerabilities are various stages in DevOps workflows rather than waiting until they go live. Review configurations but periodically re-review them to ensure accurate and up-to-date parameters to meet organizational needs.

Build a Robust Security Strategy

API security threats are rising, moving from a trend to the new – and lasting – normal. Organizations cannot shun APIs and must instead incorporate them and their risks into workflows and security strategies.

With mindful attention to API risks, organizations, their data, and their end users can remain safe from increasingly-creative cyber criminals.

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.

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