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API Security Best Practices That CTOs Can Action Today

API Security Best Practices

API Security Best Practices

Solutions Review’s Contributed Content Series is a collection of contributed articles written by thought leaders in enterprise software categories. Katie McCullough of Panzura walks us through some API Security Best Practices that CTOs can implement in their strategies today.

The rise of data-driven decision-making in collaborative, multi-cloud, work-from-anywhere digital environments has triggered a corresponding need to shift data protection measures to suit this new reality. As a result, cybersecurity is shifting away from rigid protocols and reactive measures to context-driven, pre-emptive protection of digital assets. APIs, which enable software applications to interact with each other according to a set of pre-defined requests, are integral to this story of digital evolution. Along with cloud processing, microservices, automation, AI, and advanced analytics, APIs have played a fundamental contribution in transforming how businesses extend their revenue channels, increase service offerings, improve customer experience, and innovate.

They are also increasingly the source of cyber-attacks and have been attributed to high-profile data breaches at Twitter (now X), Dropbox, and the telecom company Optus, among many others. Attacks targeting APIs increased 400 percent in 2023, and API vulnerabilities are now endemic in the modern digital landscape. Where once reacting to known threats with established protocols formed the mainstay of an organization’s cybersecurity response, it is becoming clear that security teams now need a more nuanced approach that focuses on proactive measures through preemptive threat detection.

API Security Best Practices That CTOs Can Action Today

Fundamental API Security Challenges

The basic function of APIs is to facilitate the exchange of data from one system to another, a process that inherently multiplies potential security risks. The current pace of innovation, with new services, features, and operations being rolled out almost daily, means that several foundational security practices are often overlooked. This oversight can dramatically decrease an organization’s security posture because APIs, by their very design, open up access to data and systems – often beyond the direct control of the organization.

This aspect of APIs – the “link” to external entities – is a double-edged sword. While it enables unprecedented levels of interconnectivity and functionality between applications, it also demands that security controls be as robust and comprehensive as those applied to internal access management. However, therein lies the problem: while developers and IT professionals are adept at quickly setting up APIs in the interests of enhancing their services and operations, they often don’t apply the same security standards as they would to strictly internal operations. This isn’t a procedural error but a significant strategic gap, leaving APIs as potential gateways for unauthorized access and data breaches. The challenge, therefore, is not just in the technical execution of API setups but in instilling a disciplined approach to security that matches the pace and scale of API deployment and usage.

Best Practices for API Security

In 2022, the average cost of an API security breach was $6.3 million, and, worryingly, this price tag is set to double by 2030. The limitations of traditional “threat hunting” have become apparent as bad actors continue to develop ways around standard security practices, perfectly illustrated by the steady stream of API-related breaches we’re now seeing. To counter this risk, businesses need to shift away from a basic “threat hunter” mindset, and instead start incorporating some essential security best practices as part of their API infrastructure.

  • Audit logging. Arguably, the cornerstone of API security is robust audit logging. This involves meticulous tracking and recording of what is connecting to and exchanging data through your APIs. Audit logs are not just records; they are the narrative of your API’s interactions, providing crucial insights into usage patterns, potential breaches, and operational anomalies. This foundational practice ensures that every data transaction is accounted for, enabling swift identification and rectification of any irregularities.
  • Monitoring and alerting. Proactive monitoring and alerting systems form the second layer of defense in API security. This practice is about vigilantly watching for and swiftly responding to any signs of anomalous behavior. By setting up comprehensive monitoring systems, organizations can detect unusual activities in real-time, such as unexpected spikes in traffic or unauthorized access attempts, triggering alerts for immediate action. This real-time surveillance is vital in pre-empting and mitigating potential security incidents.
  • Regular maintenance and vulnerability checks. Maintaining the integrity of APIs requires regular scrutiny for vulnerabilities, both in the API code and any third-party libraries used. This involves routine updates and patches to address new security threats as they emerge. Ensuring that APIs are up-to-date is critical in defending against evolving cyber threats. This ongoing maintenance is a proactive measure, aimed at fortifying APIs against potential exploits, including the prevalent risk of denial-of-service attacks.
  • Secure coding and data encryption. APIs, as an extension of an organization’s coding practices, must adhere to the highest standards of secure coding. This means rigorously ensuring that sensitive information, like passwords and keys, is never exposed in API releases. Additionally, encrypting data both in transit and at rest is a fundamental practice, safeguarding data integrity at every stage of its journey. These practices are not just technical requirements but are integral to maintaining trust and reliability in digital interactions.

Rate Limiting as a Proactive Security Measure

As well as the above best practices, organizations should also consider Implementing “rate limiting” as a proactive form of defense. Rate limiting is a strategic measure that’s incredibly effective against Denial of Service (DoS) attacks – one of the fastest-growing threats facing businesses today. A DoS attack is a malicious attempt to disrupt the normal functioning of a targeted server, service, or network by overwhelming it with a flood of artificially generated internet traffic. This overload prevents legitimate users from accessing the service, causing significant disruption and downtime.

Rate limiting acts as a “gatekeeper” for the API requests that this flood of traffic brings. By setting a cap on the number of requests an API can accept from a single user or IP address within a specified timeframe, rate limiting prevents the overload of servers that DoS attacks aim for. This controlled access not only safeguards against service disruption, but also ensures equitable resource allocation among users. Rate limiting isn’t just a barrier against attacks; it’s a vital tool for maintaining the stability and reliability of API services in a high-demand digital environment.

Moving Beyond Technical Measures

It’s important to mention that good API security extends beyond technological measures, and should also include adherence to industry standards and fostering a culture of security awareness. Conducting thorough risk assessments, for instance, will enable organizations to identify and mitigate potential threats before they arise. Businesses aren’t alone here – the OWASP (Open Web Application Security Project) guidelines are something of a “north star” when it comes to API security, offering a framework that businesses can leverage and tailor to fortify themselves against emerging threats.

Equally important, however, is the commitment to ongoing education and discipline in API usage among team members. This involves regular training and awareness programs to ensure that every stakeholder understands the importance of security protocols and their role in maintaining them. Together, these elements form a trident of defense, not just securing APIs but nurturing an environment where security is an integral part of the organizational ethos.

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