API Security

Security Challenges in API

APIs have become the top-most asset for an organization’s digital transformation initiatives, empowering employees, partners, customers, and other stakeholders to access applications, data, and business functions across its digital ecosystem. According to a recent report from Akamai, 83% of web traffic today is now API driven. At the same time, hackers have increased their waves of attacks against these critical enterprise assets. Unfortunately, it looks like the problem will only worsen. Gartner has predicted that,

Security Advisors predicted, API abuses will be the most frequent attack vector resulting in data breaches for enterprise web applications. One API security breach can ruin an organization’s reputation within hours. For example, JustDial is an online directory for services and also offers facilities such as bill payments and bookings for restaurants, cabs, and tickets. In 2019, while implementing multi-factor authentication, they found four old APIs with leaky endpoints. Those API were left forgotten for many years and they were exposing company data outside and millions of user identities were exposed through this. Also within the past year, an API key was discovered in a public GitHub repository that allowed anyone to access Starbucks’ JumpCloud API. The researcher who found the key demonstrated how someone can utilize such keys to take full control of Starbucks’ AWS accounts. If this had happened, it would have allowed hackers to execute commands on systems and add or remove users (Starbucks Devs Leave API Key in GitHub Public Repo).

Many enterprises have responded by implementing API management solutions that provide mechanisms such as authentication, authorization, and throttling. These are must-have capabilities for controlling who access APIs across an API ecosystem—and how often. However, when building their internal and external API strategies, organizations need to address the growth of more sophisticated attacks on APIs by implementing more dynamic and smarter security. Let’s examine different security measures related to APIs and how they help to implement a successful security strategy.

Rule-based and policy-based security checks, which can be performed in a static or dynamic manner, are mandatory parts of any API management solution. API gateways serve as the main entry point for API access and, therefore, typically handle policy enforcement by inspecting incoming requests against policies and rules related to security, rate limits, throttling, etc.

Static security checks do not depend on the request volume or any previous request data since they usually validate message data against a predefined set of rules or policies. Different static security scans are performed in gateways to block SQL injection, cohesive parsing attacks, entity expansion attacks, and schema poisoning among others. Meanwhile, static policy checks can be applied to payload scanning, header inspection, access pattern checks, etc. For example, SQL injection is a common type of attack users perform using payloads.

Dynamic security checks, in contrast with static security scans, are always checking against something that varies over time. It usually validates request data with some decisions made with already available data. Dynamic checks are performed for access token validation, anomaly detection, and throttling among others. While rule and policy-based security address most common security requirements, there can be more sophisticated attacks that cannot be caught by them. Let’s analyze them now and see possible solutions for these as well.

Policy-based approaches around authentication, authorization, rate limiting, and throttling are effective tools, but they still leave cracks through which hackers can exploit APIs. Notably, API gateways front multiple web services and the APIs they manage are frequently loaded with a high number of sessions. Even if we analyzed all those sessions using policies and processes, it would be difficult for a gateway to inspect every request without additional computation power.

Additionally, each API has its own access pattern. So a legitimate access pattern for one API could indicate malicious activity for a different API. For example, when someone buys items through an online shopping application, they will conduct multiple searches before making the purchase. A single user sending 5 to 10 requests to a search API within a short period of time can be a legitimate access pattern for a search API. However, if the same user sends multiple requests to the buying API, the access pattern could indicate malicious activity, such as a hacker trying to withdraw as much as possible using a stolen credit card. Therefore, each API access pattern needs to be analyzed separately to determine the correct response.

To fill the cracks left by policy-based API protections, modern security teams need artificial intelligence-based API security that can detect and respond to dynamic attacks and the unique vulnerabilities of each API. By applying AI models to continuously inspect and report on all API activity, enterprises can automatically discover anomalous API activity and threats across API infrastructures that traditional methods often miss.

When you select an API management solution for your organization, you will have to pay close attention to security and the level of support. The solution should allow you to expose your APIs to the outside world in a secure manner. While it is mandatory to support standard policy and rule-based security, it also needs to be equipped with additional security measurements such as payload scanning, schema validation, and AI-based security and analysis. Community-driven open-source projects are well-known for their security strengths. Most of the time, an open-source API management solution’s code can be accessed by a wide range of users, and, hence, it will be battle-tested against possible security threats.