An application programming interface (API) is a data transfer approach that enables services within an application to talk to other applications (or other services within a system). Essentially, it enables Service A to talk to Service B in a uniform way. Companies benefit from APIs on a daily basis without even thinking about them. APIs are a way for companies to gain market share from competitors and monetize applications in new and exciting ways. For example, every time someone signs on to their favorite social media platform or shops on Amazon, the application is utilizing APIs to fetch and update the data with which they are interacting.
Discovering and securing APIs is a never-ending battle for IT teams across all industries. APIs, for all their benefits, open new attack surfaces targeting a company’s data via vulnerabilities and exposures. In Gartner’s recent report, , the analysts estimated that for 2021, 90% of web-enabled applications will have more surface area for attack in the form of exposed APIs rather than the user interface (UI), up from 40% in 2019. This turned out to be accurate.
Traditional Approaches to API Security
Traditionally, APIs are protected by enterprise API gateways and content delivery networks (CDNs). Although these approaches hedge against most brute force and denial-of-service (DoS) attacks, a more nuanced and sophisticated attack can breach these protections. The traditional approaches to API security are littered with limitations.
Companies typically use two types of APIs – customer-app-facing APIs also called “north-south APIs” and internal APIs called “east-west APIs.” The external type is exposed to all public internet traffic. External developers can make requests and receive responses to these customer-facing APIs and take advantage of the functionality and data of an application while bypassing the user interface (UI). Internal APIs, however, are exposed only to intra-application traffic. For example, the cart service may call the user service via an internal API during the checkout process of an e-commerce application.
Customer-facing APIs tend to be a bit more stable, visible, and targeted at a developer audience. The largest challenge of these north-south APIs is ensuring that this layer is secure every second of every day. This open and accessible API is designed to be utilized by developers outside the publisher’s organization. The goal is to leverage a community of technical audiences and increase usage of the organization’s data and services. Occasionally API publishers encourage developers to create applications that expand on the core business.
While internal developers may call north-south APIs for their application development, the more common east-west API calls between services often drive much of the incremental feature development and new innovations. These APIs may or may not be accessible by developers outside the publishing organization. However, increasing numbers of east-west APIs are native in the public cloud so the attack surface can easily be exposed publicly. Further, changes to these east-west APIs are made constantly — as fast as a company’s DevOps and CI/CD practices allow. Unfortunately, this speed of change makes mistakes, errors, and security oversights more likely. These APIs and changes are less visible, which leaves companies at risk of discovering vulnerabilities only after a hacker has breached private data.
Security Breaches of APIs
Data leaks through all APIs, but companies can’t protect what they don’t know. The moment APIs are exposed on the internet, they create attack vectors for hackers to extract data. If some of the largest companies in the world have insecurities throughout their codebase of APIs and services, we can bet every other company does too.
Security breaches of APIs are so dominant because APIs are such a ubiquitous method of passing information. Data breaches come in many forms, but they almost always affect company revenue and reputation. New API breaches and vulnerabilities are discovered almost daily. Capital One, Microsoft, T-Mobile, Symantec, McDonald’s, Instagram, Salesforce.com, and Venmo have all experienced major API breaches in the past few years.
The DevSecOps team or security specialists should make ongoing risk-based decisions on when certain issues should be mitigated, and where in the CI/CD pipeline those concerns should be tested. However, in key scenarios, active protection is required to prevent a security incident from occurring or escalating. IT teams need to use tools that add this layer of protection without requiring humans to be involved.
The traditional approaches to API security, although helpful at reducing the attack surface, are too slow to keep up with the ever-evolving tactics of bad actors. Only with a clear and full-stack view of an application’s security can IT manage risk and enforce appropriate security policies. Without better telemetry and observability, every security decision will be a shot in the dark and critical holes in API security will be missed.
Consistently and Constantly Analyze
Security processes and tooling should constantly analyze the cloud environments, API gateways, logs, web and mobile applications, as well as source code for changes that might create vulnerabilities. Once IT is able to identify the changes to their system, they can confirm that authentication, authorization, encryption, access and verification meet the standards set for the team.
Active protection without human intervention is the only way to achieve real-time enforcement of security policies and protect against attacks as they occur. Ideally, a security solution should automatically discover and inspect for API security vulnerabilities, while humans analyze the situational risk and prioritize the work.
With active protection in place, when a security incident occurs, IT will be able to rapidly leverage critical information to appropriately identify the components of the system affected and the contributing factors that led to the event, and protect the data.