API Security: What is It and Why is It Important? 

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Salt’s research shows that 17% of organizations have experienced a breach resulting from an API security gap. Don’t become one of them. 

Data from Salt underscores why API security (i.e., application programming interface security) is so important. The firm’s State of API Security Report Q1 2023 observes a 400% increase in unique attacks on its customers compared to the previous six months, with 31% experiencing sensitive data exposure. One result of this is that API security is no longer seen as simply an engineering concern: It is now increasingly on C-level executives’ radar. 

Twitter’s 2022 API security breach serves as just one example of the dangers relating to API vulnerabilities. A security vulnerability first disclosed in December 2021 resulted in hackers stealing data belonging to over 5.4 million Twitter users. They released the data on the dark web in July 2022, causing the company plenty of embarrassment and reputational damage. 

If your organization doesn’t want to follow in Twitter’s footsteps, it’s time to focus on API security. This article aims to provide you a comprehensive introduction to the concept of API security and the significance it holds in today’s digital landscape. 

Let’s hash it out. 

Defining API Security and Its Importance 

API security refers to the holistic approach you take to keep your APIs safe against malicious attacks. It encompasses a wide range of security practices, tools, documentation, and procedures — all designed to ensure that businesses can prevent API attacks and mitigate any damage when such attacks do take place. 

The use of APIs in public and private sectors has exploded in the past few years. These interfaces now underpin vital IT infrastructure around the globe and can be found in the digital environments of everything from financial and government organizations to healthcare services. Given their popularity and widespread usage, it’s time to put application programming interface security under the microscope. 

Given that APIs expose data and application logic, API security has become hugely important to businesses. From a technical perspective, web API security largely involves (although it’s not limited to): 

Implementing authorization and authentication processes. You can do this through methods such as using static strings, tokens (either dynamic or user-delegated), etc. This approach ensures that you are in full control of who accesses your API and how they do so. 

Creating and rolling out policy-based access controls. This approach enables you to implement security via policies, rather than doing so for each individual product. This is ideal for those exposing multiple APIs. 

Instituting role-based access controls. This enables a granular approach to access levels, with differing access linked to different roles within your organization. 

Implementing rate limiting. This will help you to ensure that your API is protected from excessive system traffic that can bring everything to a standstill, thus protecting against distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. 

Examples of the Most Worrisome API Security Vulnerabilities 

When it comes to security vulnerabilities, OWASP is a highly regarded authority for software and web application security environments, including APIs. Its “top 10” lists consider vulnerabilities, attack scenarios, and prevention methods. OWASP recently shared its Top 10 API Security Risks — 2023, the order of which was as follows: 

  1. “Broken object level authorization” — This is where hackers exploit this by manipulating object IDs to access sensitive data. 
  1. “Broken authentication” — This entails a lack of protection mechanisms and identity validation mis-implementation that set the scene for hackers to take control of accounts. 
  1. “Broken object property level authorization” — This occurs when hackers can read and change object values that they shouldn’t be able to access, enabling unauthorized data disclosure. 
  1. “Unrestricted resource consumption” — This is where APIs lacking consumption limits are vulnerable to DDoS attacks by overwhelming your available resources. 
  1. “Broken function level authorization” — This is where hackers attempt to access administrative functions by sending API calls to endpoints or other resources that they shouldn’t be able to access. 
  1. “Unrestricted access to sensitive business flows” — This occurs when an attacker takes advantage of a legitimate, sensitive business flow function (e.g., making a purchase) via automation to cause harm.   
  1. “Server-side request forgery” — This occurs when hackers access a Uniform Resource Identifier (URI) and use it to bypass an endpoint’s API security mechanisms. 
  1. “Security misconfiguration” — This is where hackers use automated tools to detect unpatched flaws, unprotected directories or files, and other vulnerabilities that enable access to sensitive data and/or system details. 
  1. “Improper inventory management” — This when attackers capitalize on orphan and shadow APIs (i.e., forgotten or unknown assets), providing hackers with unmitigated access. 
  1. “Unsafe consumption of APIs” — This is where third-party APIs create the potential for hackers to exploit security flaws, meaning developers need to be careful about trusting such interactions. 

Given the breadth of these vulnerabilities, it is perhaps unsurprising that 80% of organizations report that ensuring API security is a challenge – with 36% reporting API security as a significant issue. 

In a world where data is king, APIs play a pivotal role in enabling seamless data exchange and functionality across various applications and systems. It is not a one-size-fits-all solution but a multifaceted approach that requires continuous vigilance and adaptation. Neglecting API security can have severe consequences, from data breaches and financial losses to reputational damage and legal liabilities. 

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