11 min read
API security
Looking for a comprehensive guide to API security? Dive into everything you need to know, including eight best practice recommendations.

A comprehensive guide to API security

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Did you know every application depends on API for basic functionality? Think about all the apps we use and rely on from internet banking, to social media to simply watching something on YouTube. API is a very basic fundamental when it comes to internet security.

The best way to understand API security is to understand what it is, why it matters and what best practice looks like when it comes to preventing cyberattacks and securing your systems.

What does API stand for?

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API stands for application processing interface. It allows third-party applications to interact with apps and offers seamless integrations and smooth experiences for users. It’s an important part of modern software from banking, to retail, to major cities. APIs play a role in everything, even security on your phone.

What is API security and why is it important?

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API security involves the process of protecting APIs from targeted attacks. It ensures that requests processed via the API are from legitimate and validated sources. Plus, it aims to protect APIs from being intercepted or exploited along the way.

It poses the question: why are APIs a common target for hackers and cybersecurity attacks? Without the right systems and processes in place, APIs can easily be exploited by intruders and compromise the safety of your sensitive data.

Most businesses use APIs to connect services and transfer data in an easy, efficient and secure way. If this becomes exposed or hacked, the business is at extreme risk of leaking personal and financial information and other private data. Security is the most critical consideration when developing and designing APIs.

According to the 2019 Application Security Risk Report, API abuse and cybersecurity attacks have almost doubled over the last four years. The data collected in 2018 showed 35% of analyzed web applications have API abuse issues and an increase of up to 52% for mobile applications.

Almost every application depends on APIs for basic functionality. This makes API security an integral part of modern cybersecurity.

Web Application Security vs API Security: what you need to know

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API security differs from your typical approach to traditional web security. In fact, it’s an entirely different component of app security. It’s not enough to implement security practices that protect your applications: you need to adopt a specific set of security tactics for your APIs, too.

General or web application security aims to make apps secure by finding, fixing and enhancing security elements. API security threats do not apply to general application security.

App security involves developing, adding or testing different security features within applications to prevent security vulnerabilities and protect against threats like unauthorized access and modification of private data and information. Application security has the common goal to make apps secure.

In contrast, Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) allow applications to access data and interact with others, including external software providers. API security refers to preventing cyber attacks on APIs specifically.

As previously mentioned, API security is an integral component of modernizing application security programs, keeping them up to standard and protected against modern security threats.

API security is complex and constantly evolving, meaning it should be integrated from the very beginning during the development and testing process to ensure the API is not at risk of exploitation.

To really understand the true difference between API security and Application security, you will need to understand the threats associated with both, as the landscape is ever-evolving and rapidly changing (more on that later).

To sum things up:

  • Web security = securing apps by finding, fixing and enhancing their security.
  • API security = preventing and mitigating attacks on APIs specifically.

Common types of API cyberattacks

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In order to best prepare your API system, you need to know what you’re up against. Here are four different types of common API cyberattacks.

Stolen Authentication

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One of the easiest ways to gain access to an API is to simply steal the identity of an authorized user. If an authentication token falls into the wrong hands, resources can be accessed with malicious intent while seemingly appearing to be legitimate.

Man-in-the-middle attack

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A man-in-the-middle attack (MITM) happens when a hacker successfully intercepts an API request-response between an end-user and an API. This involves stealing sensitive content like login credentials or credit card information. This attacker can go on to modify the contents of the request response.

Code Injections

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Code injections involve a hacker sending a script to an application server via an API request. The script is intended to expose or delete data, plant and spread false information or cause harm to the application’s internal systems.

Denial-of-service attacks

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These attacks are specifically designed to overwhelm the server’s resources with API requests. In turn, this will dramatically slow, break or crash the web server. More often than not, these attacks are made from different malicious sources, all at the same time.

Best practices from API Security

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Here are eight of the best security practices to greatly reduce any of your risks and tighten your systems when it comes to API security.

1. Implement authentication

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Before processing any request, an API will perform authentication by verifying the identity of the user or the program that sent the request.

Typically, APIs authenticate with a password, multi-factor authentication, and/or an authentication token.

To authenticate a request with a token, an API matches the token sent in the request with one stored in the database. The OAuth protocol is the new standard for API user authentication.  OAuth allows third-party services to exchange your information without the user having to provide their password, making it perfect for social media accounts.

2. Implement authorization

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After verifying the identity of the user sending the request, an API needs a way to grant access specifically to authorized resources and methods. Authorization (contained in a request token) can dictate user roles and permissions.

Best practice recommends developers work to the principle of least privilege. That means users are only granted access to the resources they actually need for their role, helping to lower the chance of intruders gaining access to sensitive data.

3. Validate all requests

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Sometimes requests from validated sources can actually be hackers attempting to infiltrate your system. In this situation, APIs need to determine whether a request is friendly but invalid, or malicious like an attempt to inject harmful code.

An API request will only be processed once the contents pass through a validation check. If the request isn’t validated it will not pass through to reach the application data layer.

4. Encrypt all requests and responses

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Any data transferred from the user to the API server, or vice versa must be encrypted. Any fraudulent requests or responses are useless to the intruder without the correct decryption method.

5. Only include necessary information in responses

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It’s possible for an API response to accidentally expose information to hackers. To prevent this, responses sent to the end-user should include only specific information to communicate the success or failure of the requests. Hot tip: avoid oversharing data.

6. Throttle API requests and establish quotas

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To prevent cybersecurity attacks like brute-force attacks, an API can impose rate-limiting. It’s a secure way to control the number of requests to the API server at any given time. There are two ways to rate limit API requests and they are:

  • Quotas: These limit the number of requests from a user of a certain timeframe.
  • Throttling: This slows a user’s connection while still allowing them to use your API.

Both methods are designed to allow normal API requests but prevent floods of traffic that are intended to disrupt your systems.

7. Log API activity

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If you’ve unfortunately been hacked, you’ll want to trace the source of the incident so you can fix and report the issue. This is why logging all API activity is important.

If you’re in a position where your protection has been compromised you’ll need to know where and how they got in to be able to strengthen the API. Logging can help you improve your systems  moving forward and even prevent them from recurring altogether.

8. Conduct security tests

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Leave enough time for security testing. Don’t wait for your system to become compromised before detecting any vulnerabilities. Testing should be done proactively and on a regular basis.

What is REST API Security?

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REST API (also known as RESTful API) security is a simple and flexible way of structuring a web API, by enabling any two online applications to interact and share data regardless of their size or capabilities.

REST stands for Representational State Transfer.

The REST framework shapes how content is viewed, modified and shared online. Developers can implement REST in a variety of different ways, as it ultimately aims to prevent attacks that involve sensitive data being breached or compromised.

How do REST APIs work?

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In a nutshell, the primary role of REST APIs is to field the requests for a source and return all relevant information about the resource that has been translated into a format that clients can easily interpret. The client is able to modify items on the server and even add new items to the server through a REST API.

There are a few different reasons you might choose to use REST API:

  • It is one of the most common types of API security available.
  • You want to give a networked client access to specific data on your server.
  • To give end-to-end users programmatic access to data managed by your applications.
  • To let the many different services that make up your app’s infrastructure communicate with each other.

Many successful and popular web and cloud companies use REST APIs for their apps including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google as it is a tried and tested system with many benefits.

REST API Benefits

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These APIs can handle a large number of different requests and can send data in many different formats.

Designed for communication between any two pieces of software regardless of capability, REST APIs are quick to adapt and handle an increasing number of requests.

REST APIs incorporates existing web technologies. This factor alone makes them relatively easy to build and use.

OAuth and Access Management

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OAuth is short for Open Authorization. It allows third-party services to exchange your information without the user having to provide their credentials.

The essential components of an OAuth system include:

  • The resource owner: The user or entity that owns the protected resources and can grant access to them.
  • The client: The client is the system that requires access to the protected resources. To gain access to the resources, the client must hold the appropriate access token.
  • The authorization server: The server receives requests from the client for access tokens. The server will issue those tokens once successfully authenticating the user and obtaining consent from the owner.
  • Resource Server: A server that protects the user’s resources and receives access requests from clients. It accepts and validates different access tokens and returns the appropriate resources to it.

Access Management defined

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Access management is used to authenticate, authorize and audit access to applications and different IT systems. It is the process of identifying, tracking, controlling and managing authorized users’ access to a system or app.

This type of management is delivered as a component of Identity and Access Management (IAM) solution and helps to strengthen security and reduce risk by heavily moderating access to on-premises and cloud-based apps, servers and IT infrastructure.

Most good Access Management solutions include tools for administering access privileges and tracking log-in attempts and various access activities.

When it comes to API security, setting up the right systems and protocols is what will protect your end users. While API unlocks powerful benefits for developers, it does pose big cybersecurity risks. Removing the threat of attacks altogether isn’t possible. But API security can go a long way to protecting your app and your customers’ sensitive data.

Authentication at Kinde

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