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API Security Best Practices to Protect Your Digital Assets

APIs are the cornerstone of modern software development, enabling seamless integration and data exchange between diverse applications and systems. This connectivity allows companies to integrate their internal tools with third-party services, automate processes, and manage data more efficiently. But, as APIs become more integral to business operations, they also become attractive targets for cybercriminals. 

According to Check Point, API attacks have increased by 20% since January 2023, impacting one in four organizations every week. This is why it is so essential to implement best practices and update APIs promptly. This article outlines the best API security practices and common risks and vulnerabilities to help companies protect sensitive data and keep their APIs safe now and in the future.

What is API security?

First, let’s define an API. An application programming interface (API) is a set of rules and protocols that allows different software applications to communicate and share data seamlessly. APIs are vital for modern software development, facilitating integration across diverse systems. Because APIs facilitate critical system interactions, they are often targets for cyberattacks. Hence, API security is crucial. 

API security refers to the practices and procedures used to protect APIs from unauthorized access, malicious attacks, and other cybersecurity threats. Securing APIs is crucial not only for safeguarding sensitive data but also for ensuring the proper and reliable functioning of software applications that rely on these interfaces. However, security approaches may differ depending on the type of API used. There are two common types of API: REST (Representational State Transfer) and SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol), each with its own security capabilities.

REST vs. SOAP API security

REST APIs are known for their simplicity and flexibility. They use standard HTTP methods (GET, POST, PUT, DELETE) and typically rely on familiar web technologies like OAuth for authentication and SSL/TLS for encryption. REST APIs are ideal for public APIs, offering scalability and flexibility, making them suitable for modern architectures like microservices and containers.

In contrast, SOAP APIs use a well-defined XML messaging protocol and adhere to strict security standards like WS-Security, which ensures message integrity and confidentiality. They are more suitable for enterprise-level apps and private APIs that require robust security. SOAP APIs are beneficial for integrating or extending legacy systems with stringent security needs. So, the choice between both depends on many factors beyond security alone, including application requirements, development complexity, and interoperability needs.

Why API security is critical for businesses?

As a bridge between third-party developers and a company’s resources, APIs provide access to sensitive data, including personally identifiable information (PII), financial details, and intellectual property. Therefore, they are always at risk of cyber threats, unauthorized access, and data breaches. These problems can cause downtime, financial losses, negative customer experiences, and damage a company’s reputation.

Compromised APIs go beyond damaging the business’s credibility and customer trust; they disrupt applications. As a result, third-party applications integrated with the compromised API may also suffer losses. Therefore, API security is crucial for protecting sensitive data from cyber threats, ensuring compliance with key regulations, including GDPR and HIPAA (avoiding fines and legal issues), and maintaining the integrity of business processes. 

That is not all; API security allows businesses to maintain a competitive edge in the market and foster innovation with sustainable growth. API security also involves understanding the common threats companies may face. Here, SoftTeco can help any business.

SoftTeco is an international company with over 15 years of experience in software development. They provide API development services that prioritize security and reliability. Our ISO 27001 certification indicates our strict adherence to security standards, ensuring the highest quality of our service. Leveraging our expertise in API security and following the OWASP API Security Top 10 guidelines, we build APIs that are resilient against vulnerabilities and as secure as possible.

Common types of API cyberattacks 

Before we look at the best practices to harden your API, we need to know what we’re up against. You should be aware of the following API attacks:

  • Injection attacks: involves injecting malicious code or commands into an API request and using vulnerabilities to manipulate or gain unauthorized access to data.
  • Man-in-the-Middle (MitM) attacks: in this attack, a malicious actor intercepts communication between a client and an API server, altering or eavesdropping on the data exchanged.
  • Broken authentication and authorization: weak or improperly implemented authentication and authorization mechanisms can allow unauthorized access to APIs.
  • Data exposure: occurs when sensitive information is accidentally disclosed through APIs due to misconfigurations or insufficient data protection.
  • Denial of Service (DoS): by overloading a server with requests, these attacks cause it to become unresponsive and deny access to legitimate users.

By exploring these specific risks and vulnerabilities that APIs encounter, businesses can determine the most appropriate API security best practices for their business needs.

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The best practices of API security

The best practices of API security

Below are some best practices to enhance and strengthen API security:

Implement authentication and authorization

Authentication and authorization are critical components of API security, ensuring that only authorized users or systems securely access and interact with APIs. Authentication verifies the identity of users or systems, while authorization determines the actions they are allowed to perform based on their permissions. Here are some effective methods of authentication:

  • OAuth 2.0: enables third-party applications to access user resources without exposing credentials. It grants time-bound access tokens, which restrict the scope of access, minimizing the risk of unauthorized data access.
  • OpenID Connect (OIDC): an identity layer on top of OAuth 2.0 that adds authentication, allowing clients to verify user identity and obtain basic profile data using OAuth 2.0 flows and tokens.
  • API keys: provide clients with unique identifiers, which the server verifies before granting access to API resources.
  • Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA): provides users with two or more verification factors before accessing the API. This typically involves a combination of passwords, security tokens, or biometric data.
  • JWT (JSON Web Tokens): this method includes the usage of signed tokens to provide secure, stateless authentication for efficient, scalable access control in distributed systems.

For efficient authorization, companies implement role-based access control (RBAC) or attribute-based access control (ABAC). These methods restrict API access based on the user’s roles or attributes, thus limiting resource access. So, these methods minimize the risk of unauthorized access to sensitive data and ensure system and application integrity.

Use API gateways

API gateways serve as a centralized entry point for managing and securing API traffic, offering organizations robust control over incoming and outgoing requests. They enable organizations to enforce security policies through several mechanisms, such as:

  • Authentication and authorization: API gateways handle authentication processes to verify the identity of clients accessing APIs. This centralizes security controls and simplifies management.
  • Logging and monitoring: API gateways can capture detailed logs and metrics, which are used to detect and respond to potential security incidents.
  • Traffic control: they manage API traffic by enforcing rate limiting, throttling, and caching mechanisms. This prevents API overload, improves performance, and ensures reliable service.
  • Security plugins: API gateways support integration with security plugins or middleware, such as web application firewalls (WAFs) or API-specific security tools. These plugins can be customized to enhance security by protecting against vulnerabilities.

By using API gateways, organizations can mitigate risks, ensure compliance with security standards, and maintain visibility and control over API interactions.

Audit and update regularly

To stay ahead of emerging risks and maintain strong API security, companies need to conduct regular security audits and updates. Here’s what exactly businesses can do:

  • Security audits: conduct periodic security audits to identify API security gaps, vulnerabilities, and weaknesses in your APIs. A combination of automated scanning and manual review ensures APIs adhere to the latest security standards and address security issues before attacks occur.
  • Vulnerability assessment: use automated vulnerability scanning tools (OWASP ZAP or Nessus) to identify common security issues such as SQL injection, cross-site scripting (XSS). Regularly review and address the findings.
  • Patch management: it includes using the latest software updates and patches to address security flaws and protect API components (frameworks, libraries, and dependencies) against newly discovered vulnerabilities.
  • Version control: use version control systems to track modifications to the APIs effectively, allowing for controlled rollouts of updates and the ability to revert to previous versions if issues arise. 

Performing regular API security audits and timely updating helps companies safeguard sensitive data and continuously improve API security.

Use SSL/TLS encryption

SSL/TLS (Secure Sockets Layer/Transport Layer Security) are two fundamental security protocols to safeguard data and maintain trust in API transactions. Implemented via HTTPS, they encrypt data exchanged between a client and a server, guaranteeing confidentiality, integrity, and authenticity of the transmitted data. These protocols are especially beneficial in preventing man-in-the-middle attacks where an unauthorized user intercepts and potentially modifies communication between a client and a server. 

Use data validation and sanitization 

Input data validation ensures data sent to an API meets expected criteria in terms of format, type, length, and allowed values. This process helps prevent common security risks, such as injection attacks and data manipulation, which inserts malicious code to compromise or access data.

Sanitizing output data is another crucial aspect of API security. It involves cleaning or filtering data returned by an API to remove potentially harmful content, such as HTML tags, JavaScript code, or SQL queries. This precaution protects against cross-site scripting (XSS) and other code injection attacks, ensuring that API responses are safe. Together, these practices establish a robust defense mechanism against security vulnerabilities, errors, and inconsistencies in API interactions.

Deploy a WAAP solution

Deploy a WAAP solution

WAAP (Web Application and API Protection) is a set of cloud-based security services specially designed to protect web applications and APIs from various threats and vulnerabilities. This security platform is far more advanced than a WAF that primarily monitors OWASP application threats. It integrates, observes, and takes intuitive action when needed. 

Some of the key capabilities of WAAP solutions include:

  • Fully managed Web Application Firewall (WAF):  is a core component of WAAP solutions that filters and monitors HTTP(S) traffic between web apps and the Internet. It inspects incoming traffic and blocks malicious requests based on predefined rules and policies, protecting attacks such as SQL injection, and cross-site scripting (XSS).
  • DDoS protection: is another critical feature of WAAP solutions. They can detect and mitigate volumetric, protocol, and application layer DDoS attacks to ensure the availability of web applications and APIs during high traffic or malicious attack attempts.
  • Security analytics and reporting: WAAP solutions provide visibility into web applications and API traffic through detailed analytics and reporting. They generate actionable insights into security events and anomalies, helping organizations prevent security issues.

Implement rate limiting

Rate limiting is a technique used to control the number of requests a client (user or system) can send to an API within a specified period. It helps mitigate the risk of DoS attacks by limiting the number of requests a client can make. As a result, malicious actors cannot overload the API with excessive traffic. Thus, this practice allows organizations to maintain optimal operational efficiency while enhancing overall API security.

Align with established security standards

Achieving best practices based on recognized standards allows organizations to address common vulnerabilities, unauthorized access, and malicious attacks. Among them are: 

  • OWASP Top Ten: following the OWASP API Security Top 10 guidelines helps companies mitigate the critical security risks related to APIs, such as injection attacks, broken authentication, and sensitive data exposure.
  • Industry regulations: compliance with industry-specific regulations like GDPR, HIPAA, or others ensures that APIs meet legal requirements for protecting sensitive data and maintaining privacy.
  • Security frameworks: implementing security frameworks such as NIST for cybersecurity provides a structured approach to managing and mitigating risks associated with API security. 

These standards not only enhance API security but also foster trust among stakeholders by demonstrating a commitment to data integrity, confidentiality, and availability.

Conclusion

API security is a complex and continuous process requiring continuous monitoring, sustained effort, and adherence to established best practices. With the evolving threat, businesses must adopt a comprehensive strategy for API security, tackling both traditional and emerging risks. By adopting the right API security best practices – some of which we outlined above – organizations can effectively secure their data and digital assets, proactively prevent cyber threats, and maintain trust with users and partners for long-term business success. 

FAQ:

Q: What is an API security?

A: API security is a set of practices and procedures used to protect application programming interfaces from unauthorized access, malicious attacks, and other cybersecurity threats. Robust API security measures are essential to maintain system integrity, protect sensitive user data, and ensure smooth and reliable operation of software applications and systems.

Q: How do you secure an API?

A: In a nutshell, there are different ways to ensure the security of your APIs. Among these methods are authentication and authorization methods, SSL/TLS encryption, API gateways, rate limiting, monitoring and logging API activity, using API firewalls, conducting security audits and updating your API regularly, validating inputs, and adhering to security best practices and standards – read this article to learn about them in depth. 

Q: How do you handle security in API?

A: At SoftTeco, we implement all the above best practices and more to ensure a high level of API security, keeping in mind the OWASP API Security Top 10 vulnerabilities 2023. Our specialists also conduct regular testing and provide staff training to stay updated with the latest API security trends. By ensuring the integrity, confidentiality, and reliability of our API solutions, we not only protect our clients’ data but also enhance their internal operations.

Q: How do I secure API requests?

A: You can significantly enhance the security of your API requests by using HTTPS, implementing robust authentication mechanisms like OAuth and authorization, input validation, and monitoring API traffic and logging activities. Because of these measures, API security is strengthened against unauthorized access and malicious attacks.

IEMA IEMLabs
IEMA IEMLabshttps://iemlabs.com
IEMLabs is an ISO 27001:2013 and ISO 9001:2015 certified company, we are also a proud member of EC Council, NASSCOM, Data Security Council of India (DSCI), Indian Chamber of Commerce (ICC), U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Confederation of Indian Industry (CII). The company was established in 2016 with a vision in mind to provide Cyber Security to the digital world and make them Hack Proof. The question is why are we suddenly talking about Cyber Security and all this stuff? With the development of technology, more and more companies are shifting their business to Digital World which is resulting in the increase in Cyber Crimes.
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