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Which Are the Best Practices For Securing APIs?

APIs play an essential role in the modern enterprise, and their value will continue to grow as new applications, and IoT devices are created. APIs make integrations and connecting ecosystems much easier for developers, which has added benefits for enterprises and their customers. But with a growing number of smaller application “pieces” trying to communicate with each other, APIs (your own and those from third parties) are becoming increasingly challenging to secure.

For that reason, organizations should, use a layered security approach that includes security controls such as authentication, authorization, encryption, denial-of-service protection, and ongoing monitoring. This layered approach combines several methods to protect your APIs. While each individual approach within this multi-layered approach covers a specific focus area, the unified effect increases the chances of stopping API breaches. But before presenting some API security best practices, let us introduce the main API security issues that can put your business assets at a risk. Negligence with API security can cause massive repercussions, especially if the application’s user base is too high.

Top security issues in APIs:

  • Broken Object Level Authorization

APIs tend to expose endpoints that handle object identifiers, creating a wide attack surface Level Access Control issue. Object level authorization checks should be considered in every function that accesses a data source using an input from the user.

  • Broken User Authentication

Attackers often compromise authentication tokens or implementation flaws to assume other user’s identities temporarily or permanently due to incorrect implementation of authentication mechanisms. Compromising a system’s ability to identify the client/user, compromises API security overall.

  • Excessive Data Exposure

Looking forward to generic implementations, developers tend to expose all object properties without considering their individual sensitivity, relying on clients to perform the data filtering before displaying it to the user.

  • Lack of Resources & Rate Limiting

In most cases, APIs do not impose any restrictions on the size or number of resources that can be requested by the client/user. This can impact the API server performance, leading to Denial of Service (DoS), and also leave the door open to authentication flaws such as brute force.

  • Insufficient Logging & Monitoring

Insufficient logging and monitoring, coupled with missing or ineffective integration with incident response, allows attackers to further attack systems, maintain persistence, pivot to more systems to tamper with, extract, or destroy data.

As said above, the most critical API risks are data overexposure, lack of resources, no security configuration, insecure user-level authorization, and broken objects. Clearly, it is essential to ensure the security of the API so that application user data remains safe and the application is secure and trustworthy.

Here are eight best practices to ensure APIs are shielded and do not lead to critical security exposures.

1. Identify vulnerabilities

The only way to effectively secure APIs is to know which parts of the API lifecycle are insecure. Of course, that’s easier said than done, especially as the organization’s use of APIs scales. It is important to consider the whole API lifecycle, since APIs need to be considered software artifacts on their own and, as such, must follow a complete lifecycle, including maintenance and retirement.

2. Use strong Authentication and Authorization

Many publicly available APIs have a major issue of zero or insignificant authentication and authorization. Many APIs are the entrance to the database of the organization, so it is essential to strictly control the authentication and authorization so that the database is not exposed. Poor or non-existent authentication and authorization are major issues with many publicly available APIs. For authentication, developers can use a powerful token-based tool known as OAuth. It is a framework that authorizes the information to be shared with a third party without disclosing the user credentials.

3. Identify vulnerabilities in the API

To make an API effective against security threats, it is essential to know which parts of the API cycle are insecure and vulnerable to security risks. It might be pretty challenging to comprehend this, as a software organization might use thousands of APIs at a time. The best way to identify a vulnerability is by rigorous testing. The vulnerabilities must be identified in the initial development phase so that rectifying them becomes comparatively easy and quick.

4. Don’t expose more data than necessary

Some APIs reveal far too much information, whether it’s the volume of extraneous data that’s returned through the API or information that reveals too much about the API endpoint. This typically occurs when an API leaves the task of filtering data to the user interface instead of the endpoint. Ensure that APIs only return as much information as is necessary to fulfill their function. In addition, enforce data access controls at the API level, monitor data, and obfuscate if the response contains confidential data.

5. Encrypt data

This cannot be stated more strongly or more often: All data, especially personally identifiable data, should be encrypted using a method such as Transport Layer Security (TLS). Developers should also require signatures to ensure that only authorized users are decrypting and modifying data.

6. Use an API gateway

API gateways act as the major point of enforcement for API traffic. A good gateway will allow organizations to authenticate traffic, as well as to control and analyze how APIs are used.

7. Adopt a zero-trust philosophy

In the perimeter security model, what’s “inside” is trusted and what’s “outside” is not trusted. The network is not that simple anymore, which is why a zero-trust model makes sense, especially with remote users. With a ZTM, the security focus shifts from location to specific users, assets, and resources.

8. Use Tokens

Access tokens allow an application to access your API. Once the authentication and authorization process is completed, an access token is provided. Tokens enable you to create trusted identities and assign tokens to those identities to control access to the API.

As mentioned before, APIs have become an integral element in creating modern applications, especially for smartphones and modern IoT devices. Since using an API means pulling the information from the outside source to your application, it poses a significant security risk. Too often, APIs are developed with the functionalities in mind, not the security, that’s why organizations must take API protection more seriously and dedicate effort to ensure end-to-end security.

Why Is Access Control a Key Component of Data Security?

Who should access your company’s data? How do you make sure those who attempt access have actually been granted that access? Under which circumstances do you deny access to a user with access privileges? To effectively protect your data, your organization’s access control policy must address these questions, because security is an important priority for organizations of all sizes and industries

What is access control and how does it work?

The goal of access control is to minimize the security risk of unauthorized access to physical and logical systems. Access control is a fundamental component of security compliance programs that ensures security technology and access control policies are in place to protect confidential information, such as customer data. The definition of an access control system is typically based on three concepts: access control policies, access control models, and access control mechanisms. Access control systems perform identification authentication and authorization of users and entities by evaluating required login credentials that can include passwords, personal identification numbers (PINs), biometric scans, security tokens or other authentication factors. Multifactor authentication (MFA), which requires two or more authentication factors, is often an important part of a layered defense to protect access control systems.

Generally, access control solutions work by identifying a user, verifying that they are who they say they are, authorizing that they actually have access to the resource or location, and then associating their actions with their username or IP address for auditing purposes.

What are the main components of access control?

Authentication

Authentication is the first component of access control. It means determining that a user or system requesting access is who they claim to be. Authentication is typically through user ids and passwords. It’s often supplemented by a second level of authentication, using tokens delivered either to a user’s phone or smart card, or biometrics that validate a user’s physical features such as fingerprints.

Authorization

Once you’ve determined that the person requesting access is who they say they are, authorization controls determine which data and systems the user can access. In information systems, access can be defined as the ability to read, write, or execute certain data and files. This has to be determined by determining both the functions the user needs to perform and the data they need to see. Often more sophisticated rules take into effect such factors as where the user is connecting from, the type of device they are using (desktop computer or mobile phone), and the time of day they are requesting the access.

Assigning access privileges to individual users is difficult to manage and frequently results in too many privileges being granted. Role based access control (RBAC) allows privileges to be more easily managed by grouping the permissions required to perform certain functions. By assigning users the permissions identified as appropriate for their role, they can be given the minimum access required to perform their jobs.

Monitoring Access

Access requires ongoing monitoring. There are two aspects to this. First, the actual access to your networks, systems, and data needs to be reviewed to ensure that there aren’t any attempts at unauthorized access. Second, when users’ responsibilities change, the access rights granted to them need to change as well. Deleting user privileges when an employee leaves the organization is also critical. RBAC makes this review easier, because it makes clear why privileges were granted.

In addition to monitoring the access granted, you should monitor systems for vulnerabilities that allow access even when privileges are not granted. This can be done through manual reviews and automated vulnerability assessments.

What are the benefits of access control?

The benefits of strong and comprehensive access control points within your IT platform are many.

  • Cyber-based protections

The most fundamental provision of strong cybersecurity solutions (including access control) is protection against adware, ransomware, spyware and other malware. It allows you to control who gets in and who has access to what data, and mitigates the overall risk from potential threats that you may not even know about. With global ransomware costs expected to increase to nearly $20 billion in 2021, an access control program that defends your business against these threats is essential.

  • Access Controls Are Central to Zero-Trust Security

Maintaining strict access controls is also essential to the concept of zero-trust security. That’s because the zero-trust model requires users to have authorization and to authenticate themselves before they can access or modify any systems or data — and they must continue to do so to maintain said access. 

Basically, the idea here is that everything is treated as being suspicious — even when it’s something that’s coming from inside your network.

  • Customer confidence

Your customers’ confidence in your systems should be one of your highest priorities. Even the appearance of weakness or vulnerability within your cyber access controls can result in customers backing off your company or brand. Robust access controls also prevent customers from experiencing a cyber breach by proxy (e.g., cyber thieves acquire customer data and can then hack into their financial accounts).

Access control is one component of a strong information security program. PATECCO services offer a comprehensive approach to information security, utilizing firewalls, data loss prevention software, identity and access management and other controls to implement a robust defensive strategy. Contact us to learn more about the best ways to approach protecting your valuable data and systems.