The rising importance of API Security

Danko Kovacic
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Why is API Security important?

Today we’ll be discussing the ever-rising importance of API security, but first, let’s start with the basics. What is an API? API is an acronym for an application programming interface. It’s used to simplify software implementation and maintenance and extend applications so they are more flexible and accessible. It’s also a mediator that allows for applications to communicate. 

Why should you care about API security? The purpose of APIs is to connect services and transfer data. APIs that are exploited, or hacked lead to critical data breaches. Personal and even financial data is exposed. API security isn’t taken as seriously as it should be considering how damaging an API security breach can be for a person or business. 

An important thing to know is that multiple types of data can be transferred via APIs. Any implementation of API security needs to be specific to your APIs and the data being transferred.  

Let’s discuss web API security and what REST and SOAP API implementations are.

The difference between REST and SOAP APIs

Data transferred via APIs that are connected to the internet needs to be secured. That’s where OAuth comes into play as the most commonly used way for a user to give an application or website access to certain information on different websites without exposing any passwords. There are two types of APIs: Representational State Transfer (REST) and Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP).

Transport Layer Security (TLS) encryption, which REST APIs use along with HTTP is the mechanism for ensuring the privacy of the data sent between servers, or users. This way hackers can’t read or modify the data. Another benefit of REST APIs comes from their usage of JavaScript Object Notation (JSON), a file format that simplifies data transfer processes between web browsers. Utilizing HTTP and JSON means REST APIs work faster than SOAP APIs because there’s no need to store or repackage data.

SOAP APIs are the slower of the two API types. The reason is built-in protocols called Web Services Security. Confidentiality and authentication are at the core of the rulesets that define these protocols. Two international standards bodies set the standards for SOAP APIs:

– OASIS – Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards
– W3C – World Wide Web Consortium

Authentication and authorization are done by a combination of SAML tokens, XML signatures, and XML encryption. While SOAP APIs require more management than REST APIs, they also provide more comprehensive security standards. That’s why SOAP APIs typically handle more sensitive data.

API vulnerabilities

APIs are prone to expose endpoints that handle object identifiers, creating a broad attack surface Level Access Control issue. Include Object-level authorization in every function that accesses a data source using input from the user.

Devs in conjunction with API tools document the implementation and internal structure information for APIs which makes them more vulnerable to attacks by hackers. Business logic flaws, insecure endpoints, weak authentication, lack of encryption, etc. are additional types of vulnerabilities that APIs can have. The worst cases when an API vulnerability can be exploited are:

– Broken Object Level Authorization
– Broken User Authentication
– API Injections (SQL, NoSQL, Command Injection)

Object identifiers are handled by endpoints which APIs often expose. That’s how a broad attack surface Level Access Control issue appears. All functions that access data sources via input from the user need optimal object-level authorization checks. Broken Object Level Authorization is avoided by not relying on IDs sent by the client. Instead, use IDs saved in session objects, verify authorization for every request for database access and use UUIDs (completely random IDs that can’t be guessed).

How do hackers assume the identity of another temporarily or even permanently? By exploiting flaws of authentication mechanics that are implemented clumsily. A system whose ability to identify a client/user is vulnerable affects overall API security significantly. Broken User Authentication is avoided by implementing multi-factor authentication (prevents many re-use attacks such as credential stuffing, automated re-use attacks, etc.), perform weak-password tests, limit failed login attempts, and so on.

API Injections are attacks in which the hacker injects malicious code into vulnerable software programs. The most common ones are SQL, NoSQL, and Command Injection. A command or a query that contains untrusted data gets sent to an interpreter. The interpreter gets tricked into executing an unintended command or access data without valid authorization. Try avoiding accessing external interpreters. That’s the simplest way of preventing API injection. Language-specific libraries can do the same thing as interpreters that don’t involve operating system shell interpreters. Many shell command problems are avoided this way. Make sure your web application only runs using the needed privileges for its functions. That way a hacker can’t exploit administrative privileges that the web application has.

How to improve API security

Any organization can improve its API security by creating a safe and trusted environment reinforced by comprehensive authentication and authorization policies. By using signatures, encryption, quotas, throttling, tokens, API gateways, etc. your API security increases immensely:

– Tokens (A token can be assigned to a secure identity. Access to resources and services is controlled via these tokens)

– Throttling (Quotas determine how many times an API can be called and they track the call history. When too many API calls occur this may be a sign that a DDoS attack is in progress)

– Encryption (TLS methods allow you to encrypt data. For users to decrypt and modify that data they need to possess the required signature)

– API gateway (Good API gateways are excellent API traffic enforcement that lets you control and analyze the usage of your APIs while also authenticating ongoing traffic)

Users can improve their API security even more by securing their webpages with SSL/TLS. These cryptographic protocols are communication security measures that encrypt and authenticate transmitted data. 

Parser attacks, malicious entity declarations, and code injections can be stopped if you scan payloads and make schema validations.

How NexDAST helps to remedy API vulnerabilities

NexDAST can test both REST and SOAP APIs directly or as a part of an active application scan. For an API to be scanned directly, information regarding server communication is needed. The needed information can be obtained directly from unit-testing, automatically “crawling” an OpenAPI/Swagger endpoint via schema or URL, or parsing a JSON/YAML file from a development proxy.

Once we obtain this information, NexDAST automatically performs a set of tests to determine whether your API has any vulnerabilities. If a vulnerability is identified, remediation guidelines are sent to the developers or the SecOps team so they can remediate the issue immediately.

Want to find out more about NexDAST? We’ve covered it in-depth in one of our blogs before, and if you have a problem that NexDAST can help with, request a demo here!

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