Community Tips

Protecting APIs by Merging Tools and Security Best Practices

Rapid uptake in adoption by industries ranging from banking to retail to autonomous vehicles of customer- and partner-facing and internal application programming interfaces (APIs) to drive internet traffic has resulted in an equally rapid growth in endpoint attacks – more than 11 billion over just 18 months according to a report from edge computing security leader Akamai. It makes sense that they are more vulnerable to threats from malicious actors, given API endpoints’ similarity to internet-facing web servers, and their role as pipelines between divergent platforms.

For DevSecOps teams, protecting APIs is a top priority; they are vital to mobile, SaaS, and web applications and paramount to a healthy software development lifecycle. API security is also a natural extension of DevSecOps’ push to break down silos between development, security, and operations and move toward automation and design that integrates security as a shared responsibility. 

Thus, it is time to view API security not as an external bottleneck, but as a part of a stable long-term strategy. This can be achieved by altering company attitudes and investing in API tools that facilitate testing, enforce governance standards, and automate recurring security tasks.

Adopt an API-as-a-Product Strategy

A primary reason digital transformation efforts have failed for many brands is because they do not see APIs adding value. As such, they’ve lost track of the potential return on investment (ROI) APIs can deliver. When APIs are not viewed as assets or value-generating, they aren’t subject to the appropriate level of protection or security performance oversight. In fact, Akamai’s report highlighted the fact that many enterprises relegate API security checks to the end of the lifecycle and rely on traditional network security solutions which aren’t designed to protect against the attacks to which APIs are subject.

This is starting to change, however, as API-as-a-Product strategies gain traction within the developer community. There is a notable shift away from delivering project features based on budgets and deadlines to holistically examining APIs as products and assessing their capabilities. Further, as the concept of monetizing APIs gains prominence, their protection becomes a higher priority at the outset, with organizations more inclined to adopt a human-centered design approach. 

What this means is moving API regression tests to the forefront rather than treating them as an afterthought. It means adopting a design-first approach – wherein everyone on the team speaks the same language and every tool is able to leverage the same design – from the outset with the help of an API management platform. This will also help ensure that APIs are built on established authentication and authorization mechanisms such OAuth 2.0, which is the industry-standard protocol for authorization, and OpenID Connect.

API testing tools are critical for protecting something upon which most services in use daily rely. These tools let developers see if an API is reacting adequately to unexpected inputs or possible security attacks. They show immediately if an application is running with optimized functionality, reliability, and security.

Whether it is running user authentication, parameter tampering, unhandled HTTP, or fuzz testing, it is imperative to test an API contract to ensure that services can communicate and that the data they share is consistent with a specified set of rules or standards. Further, there are many solutions in the API testing market, including cross-cloud API testing software, software that supports asynchronous testing and continuous integration/continuous deployment (CI/CD) integrations, and end-to-end testing – as well as solutions that support various formats eliminating the need for developers to learn new languages. 

Continuous testing is essential across the DevSecOps pipeline, as is robust test coverage based on API contracts that have been designed and approved. Plus, by chaining together complex API transactions and workflows, cases can be tested on-demand using continuous delivery or CI/CD to reduce downtime. 

Security in 360-degree Lifecycle Management

While API security considerations have typically been an afterthought to ever-increasing business demands, the reality is that no enterprise can afford for software security checks to be the last stage of an API lifecycle. Rather, security must be part of a 360-degree API lifecycle management strategy. It should be incorporated into every level, from planning and design to developing, testing, and release management – all the way out to deprecation.

Developers must also have oversight throughout the entire API lifecycle – which is where an API management platform comes into play. A dedicated platform can provide workflow visualizers that show an API’s complete lifecycle in a single view with issue alerts, which helps accelerate production using CI/CD in the DevSecOps pipeline to build trusted artifacts and more rapid iterations, thereby guaranteeing a security-first mindset. 

API tools also allow perimeter scans, which enable the discovery and inventory of APIs and allow for easy breakdowns for DevSecOps teams to work with. The best platforms will leverage a command line interface (CLI) – a unified tool for managing and controlling multiple services from the command line or with automation through scripts – to make APIs more easily discoverable. The team can easily determine where and how many APIs are deployed; a level of visibility that is mandatory for enterprises. 

Tools for Success

In short, an API team is only as successful as the set of tools at its disposal.

API security best practices are no mystery to seasoned security professionals – and they start with establishing solid API security policies through an API management platform. 

Finally, a collaborative approach to API governance – in line with the DevSecOps mission to eliminate siloes – is imperative for any organization’s security. 

About APIWizAPIwiz is a low-code, API automation platform allowing developers to build and release reliable APIs quickly. With APIwiz, API teams have complete control, visibility, and predictability over their entire API program, allowing organizations to stay open and connected.


Taking a Proactive, Governance-Based Approach to API Security

Security breaches are among the greatest threats confronting enterprises today, and application programming interface (API) abuse is typically central to the attacks. For that reason, API governance is critical to the success of any digital business.

Ensuring that governance results in a long-term stabilizing strategy requires following strategic API security, monitoring, and open cultural practices.

Common Errors

Just knowing when something is not right with a system or that a bug requires fixing isn’t enough knowledge to make informed decisions about security. What is required is a keen understanding of the health of a specific project throughout its entire life cycle. This includes knowing its current state, having proper visibility into the traffic running through apps and infrastructure, and recognizing error patterns – and being able to act upon any issues before they impact the customer experience.

When it comes to APIs Lifecycle and management, we’ve discussed it in great detail in this workshop recording that can be found here.

The problem with most enterprises in this regard is that they tend to be project- instead of product-driven; budgets and deadlines are tied to delivering features rather than holistically examining a product and its capabilities. This, coupled with the failure to see APIs as adding value, are why many brands have failed in their API journeys and digital transformation. They’ve simply lost sight of the return on investment (ROI) properly governed APIs can deliver.

As a result, these enterprises leave API security to the end of its life cycle when regression tests are run to determine whether it is working properly, declaring it “secure” if it passes a confined set of tests. It is a last-mile mindset that is behind the daily reports of personal healthcare data, payment information, and billing address breaches – and why API security must be everyone’s responsibility at every stage of the life cycle and built into the product design itself. 

Governance can work only when API security is considered at the outset and supported with the proper tools to ensure the team is prepared to stave off attacks from every angle.

Creating a Governance Mindset

The first step toward effective API governance is to create an organization-wide mindset rather than having it rest solely with those who develop processes. Governance must go beyond ensuring that a specific set of projects functions in a certain way and adds value. Transformational success requires continuous feedback that bridges the gap between the consumer and provider.

Adopting a dedicated API management platform to automate API security best practices throughout the API life cycle is a smart way to automate many aspects of governance. Doing so provides a top-down approach that leverages a powerful security toolkit and knows what questions to ask and when. 

Among the questions required for governance in the API are:

  • Why do I need this API?
  • Who are my API’s consumers?
  • What are consumer’s usage patterns?
  • Do they need this API?
  • What is the behavioral design for this API?
  • What is my ROI?
  • Does this API add value to my consumers?
  • How is this API being integrated with my partners?
  • Which devices are calling this API
  • What barriers are there for people to access this API?
  • How could my APIs be compromised?
  • What is being cached on local browsers?
  • How many retries are permitted when trying to access your API?

When and How to Pose Questions

When a company is scaling, taking a manual approach to continually asking and answering these critical questions becomes far too error-prone to be effective. It becomes too easy to lose track of data and too tempting to cut corners to meet deadlines. Thus, API security needs to be built into API modeling – in both test-driven design and communications with every aspect of the business.

For example, information must be continuously evaluated to determine if it is sensitive, as API governance has different security policies for internal APIs, external APIs, open-source APIs, and partner APIs.

Leaving monitoring of sensitive information in the hands of API analysts, who are tasked with building an API specification under OpenAPI, is a mistake as their focus is solely on the user interface (UI), necessary data models, and consumer demands. Too often this dedicated focus causes them to overlook essential vulnerabilities, resulting in sensitive data being built into API headers and query patterns.

Rather, everyone should be responsible for asking if a user ID is needed as part of the API and, if so, if it should be part of an encrypted payload. The API and the user ID passing through it should be considered part of the query parameter pass-through browsers with sufficient caches and cookies. 

Finally, where requests are coming from must be understood. APIs need to be designed based on the systems and devices they with integrate with as they are a growing threat from hacks – putting sensitive information at risk.

Arming a “Security First” Culture

To create a “security first” culture, proactive companies adopt self-learning systems as part of their API security toolkit that leverage the power of artificial intelligence (AI) to gather information about plan behaviors. These solutions reveal patterns and trigger appropriate actions, for example shutting down vulnerable systems before the clients risk them.

Because a team is only as successful as the tools at its disposal, every API security toolkit should include the following:

  • AI-powered API security, which self learns and self creates rules to recognize and proactively respond to attacks.
  • Straight sets of issue alerts to inform the right people as things go awry.
  • Dashboards, which enable teams to see patterns that contribute to a security-first mindset.
  • Data governance, to ensure data is being securely exchanged and being exposed only in ways that align with security policies.
  • API gateways, which are vital to API orchestration and integration.
  • Firewalls, to protect against threats like SQL injection attacks.

Security must be incorporated into a 360-degree view of the API life cycle from the outset and run through planning, designing, developing, testing, and release management. New threats emerge every day, so it’s imperative that learning be continuous.

Security must also be part of the user story and not just a box to check off in the release plan. As tooling – which should be accessible to everyone within the organization – is used to recognize user patterns, it contributes to that user story and develops a sequence of use cases from API keys to tokens to audit logs and more. This does more than give an enterprise empathy with its users; it provides valuable insight into potential system risks.

Retroactive Governance Repairs

For those organizations that did not build security into the API life cycle from the outset, it is not too late to revisit and rectify the situation. 

One common challenge for these organizations is when the CIO or other key players don’t realize an API exists until it’s already been hacked. This can be overcome with use of proper enterprise-grade API tooling that provides a complete overview of connecting APIs and the resources and information they expose. Tooling can also enable continuous API discovery, so while developers are given DevOps autonomy, others are still aware of every open-source or subscription API to which they connect.

It is also critical for these APIs to be monitored, which is where self-learning security systems play an important role. These powerful solutions detect current anomalies and feed this intelligence back into the system’s coverage and into the company’s new “security first” culture – saving it from public humiliation down the road. 

Getting Proactive with API Security

Enterprises caught up in data leaks tend to be reactive when it comes to API security. As such, they don’t have in place the right systems between consumer and provider. It’s a recipe for certain disaster that leaves the organization searching for the source of the service denial attack and creates distrust among consumers who will think twice about sharing their personal information.

Success requires a proactive approach, one that integrates security into governance at every stage of the agile process. This enables the continuous learning mindset around API security that is the only way to succeed. 

About APIWiz: APIwiz is a low-code, API automation platform allowing developers to build and release reliable APIs quickly. With APIwiz, API teams have complete control, visibility, and predictability over their entire API program, allowing organizations to stay open and connected.