Five years ago, APIs were still a mystery to most company leaders. Fast forward to today, and APIs have become a core strategic technology for organizations — large and small — across industries and sectors.
APIs are essential for companies leveraging technology as a revenue stream, connecting the dots between different systems and databases to deliver advanced services to the market. As a result, companies are developing and pushing out APIs faster and in larger quantities than ever before. While this growth points to an exciting shift in what companies must do to succeed, it poses an important challenge.
APIs share highly sensitive data between different parties, making them an increasingly attractive target for bad actors. In addition, many factors make APIs difficult to secure, leaving them open to attacks that could compromise the company, their proprietary data, and their customers.
In a time when we can’t seem to go through a news cycle without hearing about a big breach, APIs are often the culprits. As companies continue to leverage them exponentially, they need to invest in security measures that keep their systems safe.
Today, APIs enable companies to quickly exchange data and information with other applications and systems. This means that instead of having to build things from scratch, companies can leverage APIs to incorporate payment features, maps, and other core elements into their applications. As a result, developers can focus on their core capabilities without fumbling through elements that aren’t their specialization.
This approach is crucial for getting digital products to market faster in the current hyper-competitive landscape. In other words, a robust API strategy can enable companies to be the first to market with new features and offerings.
This agility is also valuable in building trust and loyalty with existing customers. Being able to respond to customer feedback quickly and create product features that explicitly meet their needs makes them more likely to stay on as customers and advocate for your brand. Some APIs also contribute to the customer journey by leveraging data to provide personalized experiences — something that’s becoming increasingly for consumers in both the B2B and B2C spheres.
Beyond that, APIs also facilitate innovation. By extending the capabilities of a given product or service, they empower companies to expand their reach and explore markets they may not have considered previously.
With all of the value that APIs provide, it’s no wonder that their use has grown exponentially in the last few years. However, with a rapid increase in usage, there’s also been a concerning growth in security vulnerabilities.
APIs are useful to businesses and make them appealing targets to bad actors: they share a wealth of sensitive information. Companies that want to leverage APIs effectively need to simultaneously have a robust plan for securing them. The challenge is that APIs can’t solely be secured with traditional security measures like web application firewalls, API gateways, or identity and access management solutions. This is because:
- The API landscape is always changing, and APIs are rarely built on the same standards. This makes having a single set of parameters for securing APIs impossible.
- Because every API is unique, attackers make more concerted efforts to compromise each one, giving them a higher chance of success. This also means you can’t use a widespread approach to secure every API.
- While shift-left tactics have introduced security earlier in the DevOps lifecycle, they don’t account for vulnerabilities rooted in API business logic gaps that might be introduced in the code.
Recently, bad actors have been increasingly leveraging these vulnerabilities. In fact, according to Salt Security’s Q1 2023 State of API Security report, attacks on APIs grew a massive 400% in the last quarter of 2022. Beyond increasing the volume of attacks, bad actors are also becoming more sophisticated — 78% of nefarious activities came from seemingly legitimate users that had somehow found their way into the systems via proper authentication.
The same report outlined a number of API security concerns within companies, including vulnerabilities, authentication issues, sensitive data concerns, outdated and constantly changing APIs, and immature security strategies. To mitigate these concerns, security leaders want preventative solutions and to stop attacks in their tracks.
There are a number of things that security teams can do to better protect their APIs. These include:
- Promoting secure API design and development by leveraging secure coding and configuration practices.
- Reducing the exposure of sensitive data by limiting how much data is sent in a given request.
- Document all your APIs so everyone can easily understand how the API is built or integrated.
- Creating an API inventory so that there’s clarity and visibility around what APIs exist where and who owns them.
- Setting up ways to identify API drift — that way, there’s an insight into how an API has changed and what impacts that might have.
- Continually authenticating and authorizing to ensure that no one is accessing sensitive data from an API without the right permissions.
- Implementing an API security platform that automatically detects and stops attacks before they reach critical infrastructure or data.
Getting this all right requires ongoing investment in API security, which in turn requires getting buy-in from other leaders and peers in the business.