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What is API Security?

Learn about API Security, why it's important, key capabilities for API Security, the OWASP API Top 10, and all things related to API Security.
What is API Security? Why is it Important?
What is API Security?
An application programming interface, otherwise known as an API, is one of the most important technological innovations of recent years. They are critical to organizations providing products and services to their customers.

API security includes measures to protect APIs from unauthorized access, data exfiltration, abuse, or fraud, and to ensure the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of the data and functionality they provide.

API security involves implementing specific measures to protect APIs, including authentication and authorization mechanisms, encryption, discovery and attack protection, and other security controls.

It may also involve monitoring API usage and activity to detect and prevent security threats, as well as responding to and mitigating the effects of any security incidents that do occur.

APIs are often used to expose data and functionality to external parties, such as developers or end users, so it is important to ensure that these interfaces are secure and that the data and functionality they expose is protected from unauthorized access or abuse.
Why is API Security Important?
API security is important because APIs are a common way for software systems to communicate with each other and share data. If an API is not secure, it can be vulnerable to malicious attacks that can compromise the security and integrity of the data being exchanged. This can lead to data breaches, loss of sensitive information, and other security incidents.

Ensuring the security of APIs is therefore critical for protecting both the systems that use them and the data they handle. Some specific ways in which API security is important include:

Protecting data confidentiality: APIs can be used to exchange sensitive data such as financial transactions, personal information, or intellectual property. It is important to ensure that this data is protected from unauthorized access or disclosure.

Ensuring data integrity: APIs can be used to update or modify data, so it is important to ensure that data is not altered in unauthorized ways. This includes protecting against tampering, spoofing, and other types of attacks that could compromise the accuracy or reliability of the data.

Preventing unauthorized access: APIs can be used to allow access to certain data or functionality, so it is important to ensure that only authorized parties are able to access this information. This includes implementing authentication and authorization measures to prevent unauthorized access.

Protecting against denial of service attacks: APIs can be targeted by attackers who try to overload them with traffic in order to disrupt service. It is important to implement measures to prevent or mitigate the effects of these attacks.
API Security
Required Capabilities
An API security platform should provide these capabilities, at minimum.

API Discovery

API Discovery is identifying all APIs in the environment, both known and unknown APIs, as well as APIs that were never authorized by the organization. This includes shadow, orphan and rogue APIs.

API discovery should give a single pane of glass for all APIs, show all API activity, and immediately show the most important and useful information for the user -- what APIs have been discovered, what APIs pose the highest risk to the organization, and a live feed of all API changes, such as when a new API is released, or when any changes are made.

Typically, the first order of business is to tackle API sprawl. This means having the ability to discover and inventory all external API endpoints and internal APIs in a data-rich catalog for complete visibility and identification of your API estate and sprawl. This includes any shadow and orphaned APIs, and be notified of any API changes.

Having automated and continuous API Discovery is also a requirement in the recently updated FFIEC guidelines that require organizations to inventory all information systems for their security and risk management initiatives.

API Security Posture Management

Perhaps one of the biggest capabilities missing from most API security solutions is the ability to measure and manage the organization's API security risk posture.

In order to successfully measure security posture, risk scores are non-negotiable. You need a security risk score of all APIs, which allows you to understand which of your APIs are most vulnerable to abuse. An API security platform needs to collect data on runtime details such as sensitive data flows, API call maps, API usage behavior, user details, event details, as well as threat activity levels.

Also paramount, is the ability to identify sensitive data exposure.

It's important to prevent sensitive data exposure by identifying API endpoints that handle sensitive data without appropriate authentication or zero-trust policies implemented. This allows your security team and development team to prioritize which of your APIs need greater security controls to protect your organization and data from threats or abuse.

Cloud Scale

An API security platform needs to be able to handle massive scale. This is especially true for large financial and retail organizations that provide tens of thousands of APIs, and need to handle billions of API calls.

This is why it's crucial to have an API security solution that is designed to process and analyze APIs, application communication, and user behavior data at cloud scale.

In addition, it should have the capability to support very large deployments consisting of thousands of API endpoints, and billion of API calls -- with flexible data collection and deployment options, including agentless or agents, depending on your needs:

1. fully out-of-band via network log analysis of AWS, GCP, and Azure Clouds,

2. Collection by instrumentation within your API gateway, proxies, or service mesh, and

3. in-app data collection through instrumentation by language-specific agents or socket filtering.

For highly regulated industries, look for a solution that can also be deployed 100% on-premise in a fully air-gapped model, without sacrificing protection, speed or scalability.

API Threat Protection

APIs pose a direct threat to systems, data, and privacy, and are now the top attack vector when it comes to abuse, data loss, and fraud, across nearly every industry.

Therefore, a key capability for API security should be an API security platform with runtime exploit protection, that automatically detects and stops known and unknown API attacks, business logic abuse attacks, as well as API abuse, fraud, and sensitive data exfiltration.

Capabilities should also include:

1. Eliminate API Abuse and Fraud: you need real-time detection and protection against known and unknown API attacks and abuse.

2. Detect and Block API Attacks: Automatically detect and block both known and unknown API vulnerabilities, including the OWASP Web and API Top 10, business logic abuse attacks, and zero days.

3. Stop Sensitive Data Exfiltration: Immediately detect where hackers gain access to sensitive data by exploiting software bugs or CVEs. Understand the flow of transactions through your application, from edge to data store and back, to quickly respond and shut down the attempted theft.

Zero Trust API Access

Enable Zero Trust API Access to Improve Enterprise and Data Security.

Today’s cloud-based, API-driven, microservices-based applications all extensively operate using APIs to communicate between users/NPE’s (non-person entities) to applications, and between applications and application components.

API Security solutions are essential to aligning Zero Trust thinking with the realities of today’s application architectures and extending the Zero Trust security model to the full application stack.

However, to date, APIs have been largely neglected by Zero Trust models. In addition, digital transformation demands and DevSecOps processes at organizations have created new gaps and vulnerabilities attackers can exploit.

As you are seeking an API security solution, look for one that is capable of enhancing your Zero Trust Security strategy. We recommend API security that can map to the NIST Zero Trust framework, as it covers reference architecture, data security, as well as compliance measures for defense in depth security.

Threat Intelligence and
Root Cause Analysis

It would be impossible to have effective API security without robust analytics and threat intelligence capabilities, that power root cause analysis, forensic research, and incident response.

1. API security data lake: you need to ability to collect and analyze the end-to-end path trace of all API calls and service behaviors. An API security data lake allows your SOC team, incident responders, threat hunters, as well as red teams and blue teams to conduct instant security analysis and root cause analysis.

2. Understand API traffic and user attribution: Understand API traffic history of user attributed transactions, sequences, and flows and perform post mortem reviews and analysis for any API security incidents.

3. Threat Hunting to reveal unknown API vulnerabilities: Perform threat hunting to reveal potentially unknown API vulnerabilities and visualize user behavior analytics to uncover fraud and abuse.

This level of security analytics enables SOC teams and threat hunters to optimize APIs and service behaviors to prevent the possibility of any data breach, ransomware, abuse, or data exfiltration.

Active API Security Testing and Shift Left Security

API security wouldn't be complete if it didn't provide coverage for the entire API lifecycle. It's imperative that an API security platform is able to effectively eliminate the risk of vulnerable APIs in pre-prod, perform rapid scans that maintain speed of innovation, and automatically obtain remediation insights for developers to further secure their APIs.

While runtime protection is important and should be prioritized to reduce risk immediately, it's also equally important that organizations are able to find and stop vulnerabilities before those APIs are deployed to production.

Look for these specific capabilities to start:

1. Eliminate the risk of vulnerable APIs: Extensive coverage for the OWASP API top 10, top CVEs, such as Java, Go, Node JS, AuthN, AuthZ, and many more. Coverage for business logic vulnerabilities and sensitive data exposure.

2. Rapid scans to maintain speed of innovation: Development teams need the ability to perform rapid scans -- with virtually no change in dev-release cadences -- eliminating friction for both dev and security teams.

3. Extensive reporting: your API security solution should produce automated and on-demand reports of vulnerabilities found while testing APIs. The information should include CVSS/CWE scores for overall risk assessment and recommendations for remediation, and be provided to development and security teams, so they can correct the security issues in APIs before those APIs are pushed to production.

Full Platform Capabilities that Reduce or Eliminate Point Tools

One of the biggest risks to organizations is having way too many point tools stacked on top of each other. If a data breach were to happen, having too many solutions can actually make it more difficult to find where that breach originated.

When seeking an API security platform, look for one that reduce or eliminate your existing tools. If you come across one that says it's a platform, but doesn't have these capabilities, it's not a true platform.

Tool consolidation also gives you the opportunity to have a more integrated and automated approach to your security. When information is in one place, and you don't have to constantly hunt for where it is, you can quickly find and resolve potential issues and stop threats.

API Security Solutions Should Cover the Following Use Cases
  • API Discovery and Risk Posture Management
  • Sensitive Data Exfiltration
  • API Governance
  • Zero Trust Security
  • API Abuse and Fraud
  • Account Takeover
  • Incident Response
  • Shift Left Security
  • FFIEC Guidelines
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API Security Threats
Some examples of API security threats include:

Unauthorized access: This occurs when an attacker is able to gain access to an API without the proper credentials or permissions. This can happen if the API is not properly secured with authentication and access controls.

Data breaches: If an attacker is able to gain access to an API, they may be able to steal sensitive data such as user credentials, financial information, or other sensitive information.

Denial of service attacks: In a denial of service attack, an attacker attempts to overwhelm an API with a large number of requests, causing the API to become unresponsive or crash. This can disrupt the availability of the API and prevent legitimate users from accessing it.

Malicious payloads: An attacker may attempt to inject malicious code into an API request in order to exploit vulnerabilities in the API or the systems it is connected to. This can allow the attacker to gain unauthorized access, steal data, or perform other malicious actions. Man-in-the-middle attacks: In this type of attack, an attacker is able to intercept and modify the communication between a client and an API. This can allow the attacker to steal sensitive information or manipulate the data being transmitted.

Overall, API security is important because APIs are often a key component of modern web and mobile applications, and they can be a potential target for attackers looking to gain access to sensitive information or disrupt services. By implementing effective security measures, organizations can protect their APIs and the systems they are connected to.
The OWASP API Top 10
Common API Security threats are listed in the OWASP API Top 10.

The OWASP API Top 10 is a list of the most common security risks and vulnerabilities in APIs. It is published by the Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP), a nonprofit organization that provides information and resources on web application security. The OWASP API Top 10 is designed to help organizations identify and address the most common security risks in their APIs.

The OWASP API Top 10 consists of the following risks and vulnerabilities:

1. Broken object level authorization

2. Broken user authentication

3. Excessive data exposure

4. Lack of resources and rate limiting

5. Broken function level authorization

6. Mass assignment

7. Security misconfiguration

8. Injection

9. Improper assets management

10. Insufficient logging and monitoring

Each of these risks and vulnerabilities can potentially lead to security incidents such as data breaches, unauthorized access, and denial of service attacks. By addressing these risks, organizations can improve the security of their APIs and protect sensitive data and systems.
The Definitive Guide to API Sprawl
Why API Gateways, WAFs and Data Loss Prevention
are Insufficient for API Security
API Gateways
An API gateway is not sufficient for API security because it only provides a limited set of security features. An API gateway is a component of an API management system that provides features such as routing, traffic management, and protocol translation. While an API gateway can provide some security features such as authentication and access control, it does not provide the comprehensive security that is needed to protect APIs from the full range of security threats.

For example, an API gateway may not provide the ability to encrypt the data transmitted through an API, or to monitor and log API activity for security-related events. Additionally, an API gateway is typically not designed to protect against advanced threats such as injection attacks or man-in-the-middle attacks.

Overall, while an API gateway can provide some security benefits, it is not sufficient on its own for securing APIs. Organizations should implement additional security measures to protect their APIs and the sensitive data and systems they are connected to.
Web Application Firewalls (WAF)
A web application firewall (WAF) is a security tool that monitors and filters incoming HTTP traffic to a web application. It is designed to protect web applications from attacks such as cross-site scripting (XSS), SQL injection, and other types of malicious activity. WAFs work by inspecting the HTTP traffic that is sent to a web application, looking for patterns that may indicate an attack. When a potentially malicious request is detected, the WAF will block the request and prevent it from reaching the web application. This can help protect the web application from being compromised by attackers.

WAFs are often used in conjunction with other security measures, such as firewalls and antivirus software, to provide a comprehensive security solution for web applications.

While a WAF can provide some security benefits, it is not designed to protect against the full range of security threats that APIs face.

For example, a WAF may not provide the ability to authenticate users or systems that are accessing an API, or to control access to an API based on the identity of the user or system. Additionally, a WAF is typically not designed to protect against advanced threats such as man-in-the-middle attacks or injection of malicious payloads.

Web Application Firewalls simply have too many architectural limitations that stop them from protecting against API attacks. API threats attack the unique business logic of APIs, and therefore, cannot be identified by signatures, even if you customize a WAF's configurations.
Data Loss Prevention (DLP)
Data loss prevention (DLP) is not sufficient for API security because it was never designed to view or protect the API layer.

DLP is a security technology that is built to prevent the unauthorized disclosure or loss of sensitive data -- typically unstructured data. They monitor network traffic and identify sensitive data, and when they detect sensitive data, they can take a range of actions to prevent it from being transmitted or accessed by unauthorized users. But none of them can see beyond that level.

If you're serious about a holistic data security strategy, that security strategy must include API security, to ensure sensitive data at all layers of the organization is protected.
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