8 min read

API Security - Why it Matters

Jun 7, 2021 8:00:00 AM

APIs form the backbone of many businesses, serving as the vital connection between back and front-office systems. Its role in UI and UX is invaluable in the sense it enables companies to simplify the customer journey when they visit websites and applications. Given its critical role in the recording and management of data and providing a seamless customer experience, API security is paramount. 

As APIs increasingly take a preeminent place in business, security breaches have become a serious issue. The Cambridge Analytica scandal, which saw 50 million Facebook users’ details exposed, was caused by an API vulnerability. It was just one example of how data stored in the cloud or the wider internet could be abused or stolen in this way. 

Does this mean we should abandon APIs and cloud technology? Absolutely not.  

It does, however, reinforce the need to focus on API security to protect businesses and customers. The threats faced by APIs are not new to the world of software or the internet, but they are being used against APIs, with attacks becoming more common with each passing year. 

The five most common methods include: 

  1. Credential Stuffing: Where the attacker uses stolen users’ information such as usernames and passwords (usually from other data breaches) to log in to API endpoints. This form of attack taps into the vulnerability of people using the same password for multiple applications. 
  2. Cross-Site Scripting: First identified by Microsoft engineers in 2000, this method is a type of code injection into web applications and sites. One example is a malicious javascript into the code of the targeted site or application. 
  3. Distributed Denial-of-Service: Otherwise known as DDoS, it is one of the best-known methods in recent years. Crude in its nature, it simply floods a network, website, or application with more traffic than it can handle. In doing so, it renders its target unusable for its users. 
  4. Injection: A more general form of cross-site scripting, the attacker inserts a code into a network or application, where ordinary users might input a username or password.  
  5. Man-in-the-Middle: Otherwise known as “monster-in-the-middle,” this mode of attack sits in between two systems and impersonates each other. In APIs, this can occur between the client and the API or the API and its endpoint. 

With these kinds of threats in mind, companies can take steps to mitigate the risks posed by such attacks significantly. The reality is the risks will never be wholly extinguished, but businesses can plan for such eventualities and limit the potential fallout. 

A common vulnerability in each of the above methods is data. At a micro-level, the focus of companies should be on protecting that data through encryption and validation, as well as a gateway to limit traffic for DDoS attacks. Once those protections are in place, it will be difficult for attackers to gain private and valuable information. 

At a macro-level, companies need to take a number of approaches to secure the wider API network against such attacks. 

Best Practices for API Security 

It’s essential for digitized businesses to secure their API networks, which serve as the engine room for operations. The crucial link between the user and back-office systems keeps companies moving, selling products, offering a service, and process payments. A successful attack on an API system would not only disrupt a business but put its very survival at risk. 

Therefore, API security is the insurance policy of digitized companies.

Prioritize Security

By making API security a central facet of business operations, companies will ensure that APIs have some level of protection from the development stage right through to completion. It can be tempting to pass the job of API security on to a third-party provider, but only by owning the whole process can robust protections be guaranteed.

Use an Advanced API Management Platform

One way of owning API security is to use an advanced API management platform. This solution enables companies to take control of their API networks, including security. The advantage of using an advanced management platform is that security can be built into the broader process, making it more effective and easier to implement.

Authenticate Access

This is particularly important for companies that have publicly available APIs, where outsiders have access. Authentication tools are essential because APIs are a gateway to an organization’s internal databases and systems. If a client were to gain access, then business operations and data can be exposed. 

Even for private APIs, access should be tightly controlled using solutions like OAuth2.0 or Open Connect. Doing so would significantly reduce a company’s vulnerability to a “Man-in-the-Middle” attack and give the ability to track users’ behavior into the broader API network.

Protect the Data

The main reason behind attacks is to gain access to valuable data rather than to actively disrupt company operations - though this is a severe side-effect. Therefore, data protection should be at the heart of API security. There are three key measures businesses can take to protect their data: 

  • Data management: There are several advanced data management tools available to companies seeking to upgrade data security. This allows businesses to streamline their data, improve its visibility by funneling it to one securely accessible platform, and update in real-time. This gives companies accurate, clean, and relevant data that boost operations. 
  • Data compliance: Governments and authorities around the world have implemented stringent regulations to protect data privacy. Compliance in this area is essential, not just in terms of abiding by the law and avoiding fines but also in practice. Taking data protection seriously will lead to solid reputations and increased business. 
  • Manage the data in APIs: Companies need to consider how much data each API needs to expose to operate efficiently. By restricting the data exposure, businesses can reduce the opportunity for attackers to steal valuable information. 

Set Access Limits

A DDoS attack works by literally overflowing APIs with requests that they crash. Setting a threshold on the number of requests per day can help stave off such attacks. Typically a limit of around 10,000 a day would be sufficient, but it can depend on the nature of the business and how the APIs are used. If an API usually processes over 10,000 a day, then a gateway would be required. 

Protect Data to Protect APIs 

Taking a data-led approach in API security is one of the most effective ways to protect a business. By protecting the data, companies will make it more difficult for attacks to obtain their target which is the valuable information they hold.  

API security is critical because it is a potential gateway to data and other sensitive information that gives companies a competitive advantage. By following good API and data governance, businesses have the ability to secure their organizations against such attacks, from both outside and within. 

The risks will never be completely eliminated but the measures set out in this post can help companies mitigate the potential damage and secure their business operations. 

Peter Edlund

Written by Peter Edlund