Security is a vital part of any software. Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) are no exception. Due to APIs' advantages to the data drive world that we live in today, the growth of APIs is exponential. Surprisingly, there is little focus on API security.

By design, APIs are information gateways that enable outsiders to access your data and services. Behind them lies endpoints that can be vulnerable to attacks. Just like any internet-facing web server, the more access the public has, the greater the potential of attacks from malicious actors. As a result, APIs are turning into ripe targets waiting to be harvested by attackers.

What is API Security?

API security

API security refers to the protection of the integrity of APIs. It covers the products and practices that prevent attacks on and misuse of APIs. As you already know, their growth and potential vulnerability have made them a target for hackers. Gartner estimates that by 2022, API abuses will be the most used attack vector resulting in major data breaches for enterprise web systems.

If you are to compare APIs with an online web server, you will notice that many websites employ some form of access control, such as requiring users to log in. APIs, on the other hand, provide little or no access control. As a result, they offer a perfect attack surface for hackers. From these attack surfaces, attackers could gain access to a system, extract or input data, or carry out other malicious activities.

Some attacks targeted on APIs include Man in the Middle Attacks, Distributed Denial of Service, Cross-site scripting, and credential stuffing. All of these attacks not only lead to misuse but can also lead to major data breaches. They expose sensitive medical, personal and financial information to the attacker.

There is no doubt that an attack can lead to damaging the reputation of a business. Worse still, such attacks can take an organization out of business.

Security Pros and Cons of RESTFUL API vs. SDKs

RESTful APIs (Or REST APIS) is an architectural style of APIs that use HTTP requests to access and use data.

Software Development Kits (SDK) is a set of software tools used by developers to develop applications for a specific platform.

SDKs allow developers and end-users to oversee added security features that can prevent attacks through the developed application. On the other hand, APIs do not make this process simple, and therefore developers often miss out on securing applications, leaving them vulnerable to attacks.

Top 3 Ways to Secure Your APIs

1.  Authorization and Authentication

Authentication and authorization

Many publicly available APIs have poor or non-existent authentication and authorization mechanism. This vulnerability provides attack surfaces that hackers can exploit as entry points to access an organization's database. Organizations must, therefore, strictly control who can access the API and what they can do.

When feasible, you should use OAuth 2.0 and OpenID Connect for authorization and authentication, respectively.

OAuth2.0 is the industry-standard industry-standard protocol for authorization. This standard focuses on developer simplicity by allowing API providers to rely on third-party servers to manage authorizations. The end-user does not need to provide credentials; instead, they use a token provided by the third-party server.

OpenID Connect (OIDC) is a simple identity layer that you can use on top of the OAuth 2.0 protocol. OpenID Connect allows clients to verify the identity of users through authentication performed by the authorization server.

2.  Use Encryption and Digital Signatures

Encryption key

APIs are often used to share sensitive information such as credit card numbers or login credentials. Such data provides an opportunity for man-in-the-middle attacks. For this reason, TLS encryption should be considered essential.

A digital signature is a form of electronic signature that uses a mathematical algorithm to validate the integrity and authenticity of a message. Digital signatures generate a unique hash of a document by encrypting it using the sender’s private key that can be verified using the corresponding public key. Tampering with the message will completely change the hash, ensuring that the message reaches the destination unaltered.

3.     Use Quotas and Throttling

Speed display for quotas and throttling

In a Denial of Service attack/ Distributed Denial of Service attacks, the attacker floods the system with many requests to deplete finite resources such as memory, thereby making the service unavailable for legitimate users. APIs are particularly vulnerable to DDoS attacks.

The most effective way to mitigate DOS/DDoS attacks is to place quotas and track API usage over time. Setting a threshold (For example, 1000 requests per account per day) beyond which subsequent calls will be rejected will automatically block out any potential attack.

Throttling and setting quotas act as a circuit breaker and protect the underlying infrastructure at the API endpoint. It covers the back-end processes and the users of the API. Implementing quotas requires a sophisticated API management platform that can enforce such policies.

Final Thoughts

Cybercriminals are always on the search for new opportunities to launch attacks. In this data-driven era, the use of APIs is exponentially rising. Sadly, there is little focus by developers and business owners on API security. If this issue is not appropriately addressed, the otherwise functional API can be converted by attack surfaces to gain access to sensitive data.

The first thing in securing your API is putting in place authorization and authentication measures. This only gives access to authorized people or applications to use the API. All communication should also be encrypted to mitigate Man in the Middle attacks. Lastly, use quotas and throttling as a measure against DoD or DDoS attacks.

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