Application programming interfaces (APIs) are widely used online for a variety of purposes: to streamline login processes, enable online payments, and other uses. As organizations attempt to increase their online presence and update their business practices to be quicker and more convenient for the digital age, many turn to APIs as a practical tool for that end. While APIs are extremely useful, they also present unique and difficult security challenges with the potential to lead to serious attacks and breaches. For this reason, it is vital that organizations understand the factors that put them at risk when they use an API, as well as how to make their APIs secure.
API Risk Trends
Across the board, by all metrics, API risks seem to be on the rise. One report cites a 400% increase in the number of unique attackers targeting customer APIs, this massive growth occurring over only a few months. It also shows that 78% of attacks on APIs “come from seemingly legitimate users who have maliciously achieved the proper authentication.” On the business side, 48% of respondents to the survey state that API security has become a C-level discussion in their organization in the past year.
Unfortunately, API vulnerabilities are the most commonly cited security problem in APIs at 41%, followed by authentication problems (40%), sensitive data exposure (31%), and brute forcing or credential stuffing (20%). Around two-thirds of API attacks leverage at least one of the vulnerabilities listed on the OWASP Top Ten, whereas only 54% of organizations treat the list as a focus area. A staggering 30% of respondents state that their organization has no API security strategy currently in place. Only 19% of survey respondents feel very confident in their API inventory’s accuracy, an issue made worse by the fact that 64% of organizations update their APIs at least once a month, and documentation struggles to keep up.
Dangers of API Vulnerabilities
API security is hugely important, and a lack of secure software and practices may lead to a catastrophic attack or data breach. The information processed by APIs is often sensitive or personally identifiable, including names, contact information, banking or other financial information, and account login credentials. For an individual, this could mean having one’s identity or money stolen; for an organization, it can lead to the exposure of the same kind of data on a much larger scale. Employee, customer, and enterprise data are all at risk with insecure APIs.
While data theft and exposure is enough of a danger on its own, there are also other consequences of poor API security. Attackers can exploit API vulnerabilities to inject malicious code, which may infiltrate the organization’s systems and spread through user accounts. They can also simply use stolen credentials to gain unauthorized access to various areas of the network, which they can use not only to steal, expose, or destroy sensitive data, but also to implement malware or ransomware, carry out phishing campaigns, and tamper with vital systems and infrastructure. This can lead to loss of revenue, massive remediation costs, and even loss of reputation.
API Security Tips and Best Practices
Fortunately, there are plenty of resources available for organizations looking to fortify the security of their APIs. While there is no one-and-done solution, an enterprise that is willing to commit the appropriate resources to cybersecurity should be able to establish a layered security strategy that adequately protects APIs. It is important first to have an understanding of the API attack surface and life cycle, in order to identify where vulnerabilities lie. Then, leveraging OAuth helps to secure the authentication and authorization process by providing tokens to allow third-party services to obtain necessary data without the exposure of any user credentials.
It is also recommended that organizations encrypt all of the data that will be handled by an API, especially sensitive or personally identifiable information (PII). Decryption should require signatures to ensure that unauthorized users cannot obtain decrypted data. Rate limiting and throttling also help to prevent bad actors from targeting an API for DDoS attacks, among others. API gateways are useful to restrict access, providing an additional layer of security. Using the principle of least privilege and a zero-trust framework will make it more difficult for attackers—or well-meaning insiders—to expose sensitive data. These best practices can go a long way toward protecting APIs.
The use of APIs is unavoidable online, and they only continue to grow more and more popular. While APIs are a significantly useful technology, they also pose a threat to the users and organizations who make use of them. API security is absolutely essential, but many businesses do not prioritize it, and some hardly think of it at all. There are a great number of ways that an improperly secured API can lead to an attack, whether it be data theft, malware injection, or account takeover. Understanding the risks presented by insecure API usage and the best practices for protecting APIs is a crucial part of a solid cybersecurity strategy.