API security: 4 best practices every business should implement
This blog emphasises the importance of securing an API setup in order to protect sensitive data from malicious third parties and prevent security incidents. It suggests implementing broad-sweeping API safety solutions as well as researching other methods such as Essential 8 for API control access and similar features.
The matter of best security practices is a topic as layered as it is tired and well-trodden, and this goes doubly so when it comes to API security best practices, in particular. Yet, the protection of sensitive data remains as relevant today as it's ever been, and iterative summarisation of API security does, quite clearly, hold immense importance for enterprise-minded individuals.
With data breaches taking place as often as they do, the leveraging of Transport Layer Security for generalised web services' security is a good baseline, but it's not enough for API security as a whole. API vulnerabilities do sometimes beyond anything that basic authentication and access control could deal with. Yet, API traffic can indeed be secured reasonably well through the implementation of relatively simple API security best practices. That is precisely what will be outlined in this shortlist for a robust security system in the given context.
Whether you'd like to learn the basics of API security or if you're an experienced enterprise-grade user that would like to get a quick refresher, this article is for you. We will go over all the key basics of API security and some generalised best practices for keeping sensitive data safe in general, giving you a broad look at how it all comes together.
What is API security?
To start from the very beginning, API security is the practice of ensuring that an application programming interface (API) is fully protected from malicious attacks, such as denial-of-service instances. The proper protection of API involves the use of a variety of security measures, including (but not limited to) encryption, authentication, authorisation, and input validation to protect the API from malicious actors and code injections.
By ensuring the security of its API, an organisation could protect its data, resources, and applications at a very basic level. When it comes to API security and security in general, a unit's security aspects are only as good as its weakest link, and the ability to sift through API requests and API traffic with confidence in your security stack is a good place to start.
Why is API security important?
API security matters a great deal because it helps protect the data and resources which end up getting shared through APIs from being accessed and/or misused by malicious actors. Investing in full-fledged API security helps prevent data breaches, protect user privacy, and maintain the integrity of your operational systems. On top of that, API security also helps in using application programming interfaces themselves in an efficient and secure manner.
It's also worth pointing out that keeping up with the best API security practices allows organisations to stay compliant with data privacy laws and regulations, which is a crucial aspect of simply staying in business.
Ensuring that your data and services are protected from unauthorised access or manipulation is an obvious aspect of API security, but it can be hard to visualise how, precisely, one might achieve this goal. In short, the goal is to use encryption, authentication protocols, and a robust suite of access control measures to ensure that only properly authorised users can access the given data and services.
4 API security best practices
Here, we will discuss a comprehensive set of guidelines that should be used to ensure the secure and compliant usage of any given set of APIs. These best practices involve authentication, assessment, monitoring, and data validation, in broad terms.
The following guidelines are exceedingly important to ensure APIs' safe and compliant usage. Whether it's to protect the users and their data, or to keep the company safe from malicious third parties, these ought to be implemented in some capacity, and the first step in doing so is to learn about them.
Readers who'd like to get an even more comprehensive list of essential web and API security measures may also wish to read about the so-called Essential 8. Devised by the Australian Cyber Security Center (ACSC), Essential 8 is comprised of eight disparate security methods that, when implemented, will provide an excellent risk mitigation system for any use case. They also go hand-in-hand with API security options outlined below.
1: Authorise authentication: devices and users
Authentication and authorisation are two important components of API protection. Authentication is the process of verifying the identity of a user or device, while authorisation is the process of verifying what a user or device is allowed to do. Authentication typically involves verifying a username and password, while authorisation typically involves verifying a user's permissions. Together, they help to ensure that only authorised users can access an API, and that they can only do what they are allowed to do.
It's important to note that Transport Layer Security (i.e. SSL/TLS products) come in extremely handy here, too, as they provide twofold value to your API:
- protects the information passthrough of your API
- informs your users that the API you're providing is legitimate and protected
Without an SSL/TLS solution, whatever authorisation and authentication systems you might have in place become effectively useless as soon as a malicious third party intercepts your information pipeline. By keeping a close eye on the API key and the API gateway, as well as investing in proper authentication protocols, you're not only making API management easier in general, but also reducing the odds of broken object-level authorisation problems that could pop up later on.
It is also worth remembering that some hosting solutions come with a baseline SSL/TLS included by default, which can be a huge boon for those who don’t wish to pursue additional expenses right off the bat.
2: Assess API risks
API risks should be assessed in order to ensure that any potential security issues are identified and addressed in an appropriate and timely manner. By assessing API risks, organisations can ensure that their APIs are secure and that any data that is exposed or transferred through them is protected from security threats at any given time. This is particularly important in the modern digital age, where data breaches can have devastating consequences for businesses both big and small.
Furthermore, being risk-averse will help in the identification of any potential vulnerabilities in APIs and implement the necessary measures to mitigate them ahead of time. This can include implementing authentication and authorisation protocols (as referenced in the previous section), implementing access control mechanisms (like Simple Object Access Protocol), and regularly reviewing and updating their APIs. Doing so can help protect API setups from any malicious actors who may attempt to exploit them for malicious purposes.
The assessment and mitigation of API risks is of utmost importance in order to protect the security of APIs and any data that is exposed or transferred through them. By implementing the necessary measures such as authentication and authorisation protocols, access control mechanisms, and regular reviews and updates, organisations can ensure that their APIs are secure and that any data they handle is kept safe.
3: Use rate limiting and throttle API requests
Rate limiting and API throttling are two techniques used to control the rate of requests made to an API. Rate limiting is the process of limiting the number of requests a user can make within a given time period, while API throttling is the process of limiting the number of requests an API can handle within a given time period. Both techniques are used to ensure that an API does not become overloaded with requests, which can lead to poor performance and even outages.
By preventing request overloads and, in a best-case scenario, completely avoiding API outages and performance hassles, you can make sure that there are as few access control openings for malicious third parties as possible, and that your API management doesn't get overloaded at any point in time.
This, in turn, results in a safer and more reliable system with fewer API vulnerabilities that could be abused and makes it virtually impossible to risk excessive data exposure completely at random.
4: Conduct regular security tests
It is important to conduct regular security tests with APIs in order to identify any potential vulnerabilities and ensure that they are addressed in a timely manner. Regular security tests can help organisations identify any issues before they become a bigger problem and can help protect against malicious actors who may attempt to exploit them. Furthermore, regular security tests can help companies ensure that their APIs are compliant with industry regulations and standards.
Regular security tests can be conducted in a number of ways, depending on the type of API and the level of security needed. Common security tests include penetration testing, application security testing, and code review. Penetration testing can help organisations identify any potential weaknesses in their APIs that may be exploited by malicious actors. Application security testing can help identify any security issues in the application layer, such as authentication and authorisation protocols, access control mechanisms, and data encryption. Finally, code review helps in identifying any security issues in the code, such as buffer overflows or memory leaks.
Generally speaking, by conducting regular security tests, organisations can ensure their APIs are secure and compliant with industry regulations and standards with a relatively small time investment. Over a long period of time, it pays off with dividends, however.
It should be obvious by now just how important it is to secure one's API setup. Not only to reduce the malicious third parties' ability to access sensitive data but also to reduce the chances of your own API setup going haywire. Preventing a security incident isn't just the purview of rapid-fire anti-hacking implements, but also the business of a secure identity layer not allowing anyone access to undue sensitive information. Proper implementation of broad-sweeping API safety solutions is mandatory in this respect.
As noted beforehand, it's worth remembering that this generalised shortlist is not the be-all, end-all of API control and security. Investing time in researching methods such as Essential 8 and a variety of other sources can only assist individuals when it comes to setting up a robust and reliable set of API control access and similar features, with the items brought up in this article being a stellar starting point in its own right.
Paul Baka is a cyber security expert specialising in PKI solutions and website security. He is often in front of his computer, trying to break into a website or API for clients and writing about it to improve the safety of others. He is a published author with his books on PKI Solutions and SSL/TLS Certificates, a Fire Fighter with his local brigade, and an avid snowboarder in the winter.