Remember when ransomware was the main security threat that DevOps teams needed to worry about?
Those days are over. Ransomware attacks are certainly still happening, but API security breaches—which increased by a whopping 600% in 2021—are now poised to become the top attack vector for threat actors, according to Gartner.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that, in many respects, the security practices that DevOps teams already have in place to defend against ransomware can be repurposed to deliver API security, too—with a few tweaks.
Keep reading for a look at the state of API security today, along with tips on expanding upon DevOps’ existing ransomware defense techniques to protect your APIs.
The Preponderance of APIs
Although it may seem surprising that APIs have suddenly become an attacker’s best friend, it’s actually not when you step back and think about how deeply dependent we’ve become on APIs over the past half-decade.
APIs have been around for a long time. But until relatively recently, APIs were used mostly for specific types of applications, B2B or infrastructure integrations. It wasn’t until the pivot toward microservices and distributed architectures that internal (or east-west) APIs became the glue that holds application environments together and carries information (which is sometimes sensitive) between the components and micro-components of an application.
As for external APIs, publishing public APIs has become a basic expectation for virtually any business with a software product—to the extent that there are now something like 22,000 public APIs out there as well as several orders of magnitude more internal APIs.
The result is a world where APIs create potential attack vectors against virtually every application or service. It only makes sense, then, that the bad guys are increasingly focusing on exploiting APIs as a means of obtaining access to things you don’t want them to have.
From Ransomware Protection to API Protection
You might think that securing APIs requires fundamentally new security tools and practices. In reality, though, there are extensive parallels between mitigating ransomware risks and mitigating API security risks. And DevOps teams are a major line of defense against these.
Here’s how to extend an anti-ransomware strategy to an anti-API-exploit strategy.
Prevent Lateral Movement
Like ransomware, which propagates from endpoint to endpoint laterally by exploiting flaws and vulnerabilities, API exploits also typically spread laterally across an environment.
This means that even if you can’t prevent all API (or ransomware) attacks from breaching your perimeter, you can take steps to make it hard for breaches to expand. By detecting malicious activity inside your environment early on, you can stop lateral propagation of the threat before it leads to a largescale compromise.
Focus on Data Security
Ransomware attacks and API attacks are both focused on compromising the same crown jewel: Your data. Ransomware attackers want to hold that data for ransom. API attackers—such as those who stole sensitive information from compromised Peloton accounts, or others who breached LinkedIn’s API to scrape data about 700 million users—typically want to exfiltrate it, possibly to resell it or maybe just to harm your business’s reputation.
Mitigating both ransomware risks and API security risks, therefore, boils down to securing your data. By enforcing strong access controls and segmentation over what both internal and public APIs can do, you mitigate the risk of data exfiltration due to API security breaches.
Use Behavioral Security Models
Investing all of your signature-based security controls in attack prevention doesn’t work well for either ransomware or API attacks, especially when they are zero-day or unknown attacks. While you certainly should do what you can to harden your environment, it’s impossible to guarantee that a breach won’t slip past your defenses.
That’s why deploying behavior-based security models is key to protecting against both ransomware and API attacks. Behavioral security models detect anomalous activity inside an environment, such as unusual types of requests or strange request patterns. By modeling and baselining behaviors and detecting anomalies based on your model, you can prevent attacks from spreading once they are underway.
Don’t Rely on Perimeter-Based Defenses
Along similar lines, trying to protect the perimeter of your environment is not a surefire defense against either ransomware or API attacks. Instead, you need to distribute protections across all of your endpoints, applications, services and so on.
Again, nothing will guarantee that attackers won’t get in. The success of your defense hinges, in large part, on your ability to make it hard for them to escalate their attack from a small-scale breach into one that impacts a wide array of resources.
Look Beyond the Surface
Ransomware and API attacks are similar in that both often involve attack methodologies designed to elude common security monitoring tools.
For example, attackers might try to leverage ports 80 or 443 (the default HTTP/HTTPS ports), which will almost always be open on firewalls. It’s therefore imperative to avoid relying just on standard ports or on encryption to protect API traffic. Instead, you must look deep into the payload, then parse and understand the protocols. It is also important to monitor and collect data from multiple sources, then correlate and analyze them to a get a deeper understanding of what is actually going on within the environment.
To be sure, ransomware attacks and API security attacks are fundamentally different in some respects. They involve the exploitation of different protocols and the goals of attackers are usually a bit different.
But in terms of how attackers operate, what they want to steal (your data) and the limitations of perimeter-based defenses, ransomware attacks and API attacks are actually pretty similar.
That’s why developers and DevOps teams don’t need to rethink their entire security strategy to cope with the surge in API attacks. Instead, do what you’re already doing to protect against ransomware and use those techniques to help secure your APIs, too.