Why is API security the next big thing in Cybersecurity?

August 15, 2023  |  Farwa Sajjad

The content of this post is solely the responsibility of the author.  AT&T does not adopt or endorse any of the views, positions, or information provided by the author in this article. 

APIs, formally known as application programming interfaces, occupy a significant position in modern software development. They revolutionized how web applications work by facilitating applications, containers, and microservices to exchange data and information smoothly. Developers can link APIs with multiple software or other internal systems that help businesses to interact with their clients and make informed decisions.

Despite the countless benefits, hackers can exploit vulnerabilities within the APIs to gain unauthorized access to sensitive data resulting in data breaches, financial losses, and reputational damage. Therefore, businesses need to understand the API security threat landscape and look out for the best ways to mitigate them.

The urgent need to enhance API security 

APIs enable data exchanges among applications and systems and help in the seamless execution of complex tasks. But as the average number of APIs rises, organizations often overlook their vulnerabilities, making them a prime target of hackers. The State of API Security Q1 Report 2023 survey finding concluded that the attacks targeting APIs had increased 400% during the past six months.

Security vulnerabilities within APIs compromise critical systems, resulting in unauthorized access and data breaches like Twitter and Optus API breaches. Cybercriminals can exploit the vulnerabilities and launch various attacks like authentication attacks, distributed denial-of-service attacks (DDoS), and malware attacks. API security has emerged as a significant business issue as another report reveals that by 2023, API abuses will be the most frequent attack vector causing data breaches, and also, 50% of data theft incidents will happen due to insecure APIs. As a result, API security has. become a top priority for organizations to safeguard their data, which may cost businesses $75 billion annually.

Why does API security still pose a threat in 2023?

Securing APIs has always been a daunting task for most organizations, mainly because of the misconfigurations within APIs and the rise in cloud data breaches. As the security landscape evolved, API sprawl became the top reason that posed a threat to API security. API sprawl is the uncontrolled proliferation of APIs across an organization and is a common problem for enterprises with multiple applications, services, and development teams.

As more APIs are created, they expanded the attack surface and emerged as an attractive target for hackers. The issue is that the APIs are not always designed by keeping security standards in mind. This leads to a lack of authorization and authentication, exposing sensitive data like personally identifiable information (PII) or other business data. 

API sprawl produces shadow and zombie APIs that further threaten API security. A zombie API is an exposed, abandoned, outdated, or forgotten API which increases the API security threat landscape. These APIs proved helpful at some point, but later they got replaced by newer versions. As organizations work on building new products or features, they neglect the already existing APIs to wander in the application environment allowing the threat actors to penetrate the vulnerable API and access sensitive data.

Contrastingly, shadow APIs are third-party APIs often developed without proper surveillance and remain untracked and undocumented. Enterprises that fail to protect against shadow APIs introduce reliability issues, unwanted data loss, penalties for non-compliance, and increased operational costs.

Moreover, the emergence of new technologies like the Internet of Things (IoT) has introduced more difficulty in maintaining API security. With more devices connected to the internet that can be accessed remotely, any inadequate security measures can lead to unauthorized access and potential data breaches. In addition, generative AI algorithms can pose security challenges. Hackers can use AI algorithms to detect the vulnerabilities within the APIs and launch targeted attacks.

Best practices to improve API security amid rising threats

API security has become a critical concern for organizations and requires a holistic cybersecurity approach to mitigate the threats and vulnerabilities. Developers and security teams must come forward and collaborate to implement the best practices like the ones mentioned below to improve API security:

Discover all the APIs

API discovery is crucial in uncovering modern API security threats like zombie and shadow APIs. The security teams are trained in protecting the mission-critical APIs but discovering the internal, external, and third-party APIs is also vital to enhance API security. Organizations must invest in automated API discovery tools that detect every API endpoint and provide visibility into which APIs are live, their location, and how they function.

Developers should also monitor the API traffic by integrating API gateways and proxies that may indicate the presence of shadow APIs. In addition, creating policies that define how the APIs are documented, used, and managed further helps locate unknown or vulnerable APIs.

Assess all APIs via testing

As API security threats become more prevalent, security teams can't rely on common testing methods. They need to adopt an advanced form of security testing methods like SAST (static application security testing). It is a white-box security testing method that identifies the vulnerabilities and remediates the security flaws within the source code. Providing immediate feedback to developers allows them to create a secure code that ultimately leads to secure applications. However, as this testing cannot detect vulnerabilities outside the code, security teams can consider using other security testing tools like DAST, IAST, or XDR to improve security standards.

Adopt a Zero Trust security framework

Also, users must authorize and authenticate themselves to access the data, and this way plays a vital role in reducing the attack surface.

Users must authorize and authenticate themselves to access them and help reduce the attack surface. In addition, by leveraging Zero Trust architecture (ZTA), APIs can be segmented into smaller units having their own set of authentication, authorization, and security policies. This gives security architects more control over API access and enhances API security.

API posture management

API posture management is another great way that helps organizations to detect, monitor, and minimize potential security threats due to vulnerable APIs. Various posture management tools continuously monitor the APIs and notify them about suspicious or unauthorized activities. This enables organizations to respond promptly to API security threats and reduce the attack surface.

These tools also perform regular vulnerability assessments that scan the APIs for security flaws, allowing organizations to take measures to strengthen API security. Besides this, these tools provide API auditing capabilities and ensure compliance with leading industry regulations such as HIPAA or GDPR and other internal policies to maintain transparency, and maximize overall security standards.

Implementing API threat prevention

Improving API security is an ongoing task; therefore, threats can still emerge no matter how strong monitoring and security policies are. This raises the need to implement proactive API threat preventive measures that identify and mitigate potential API threats that adversely impact a business.

API threat prevention includes using specialized security solutions and techniques like threat modeling, behavioral analysis, vulnerability scanning, incident response, and reporting. Also, by continuous monitoring, enforcing encryption or authentication mechanisms, or API rate limits, organizations can avoid data breaches and ensure uninterrupted business operations.

Final thoughts

With the rise in API adoption, organizations face significant challenges in securing them against malicious actors resulting in unauthorized access and potential data breaches. Therefore, ensuring API security is the foremost responsibility of every developer. This can be achieved by following practices like discovering all the APIs, performing security testing, deploying  a Zero Trust approach, using API posture management tools, and adopting API threat prevention measures. By following these practices, security teams can reduce the API threat surface, ensure that all APIs are secure, and stay compliant with industry standards.

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