Common API Security Mistakes

There is a distinct difference between simply building an API and designing and developing an API that has the security features that allow it to reliably address the needs of the users. Here are some common API security mistakes to be aware of and helpful best practices for avoiding them.

There is a distinct difference between simply building an API and designing and developing an API that has the security features that allow it to reliably address the needs of the users. Here are some common API security mistakes to be aware of and helpful best practices for avoiding them.

No Plan for API Security

Not prioritizing API security during development can be attributed to apprehension about tackling API security, a lack of expertise on the subject or reluctance to being held responsible for any security complications that arise. Also, many times, organizations want to develop quickly, and API security is not seen as a priority to move a product to production. However, not having an action plan in place for worst-case scenarios could leave an enterprise severely compromised in the event of an attack.

Best Practice: Security should be a main focus during the development of an API, not an afterthought. There are many different development tools available that can be used to ensure an API has the proper security features it needs.

Leaving APIs Exposed

Implementing an API with no mechanisms in place for verifying who is trying to gain access and whether they have the appropriate authority exposes both the API and any connected digital assets to hackers and bots searching for vulnerabilities and will gain access to exposed APIs and mine for sensitive data.

Best Practice: Require a minimal level of API security. The minimum level of API security would include these three (3) basic security mechanisms. First, basic authentication can be used at the front end, requiring usernames and passwords. This mechanism has, over-time, become less and less recognized as a responsible and vigorous response. Second, incorporating Internet Protocol (IP) address whitelisting, so only certain IP addresses may access the API. Third, authorization processes can segregate the data and information needs of the originating request, allow appropriate access based on level access definitions.

Homegrown API Security

The risk with keeping API security in-house is that error scan occur, even if security was a priority during development. There can be loopholes in the code — API code that is poorly written could be easy to hack and is a security risk. Another factor to consider is the effort and time required by an enterprise’s developers to ensure that security standards are updated frequently and are effective. This is likely to occur at the expense of other projects and result in technical debt.

Best Practice: Use third-party API security providers, like Ping Identity, that keep up to date with the latest in API security for you so you don’t have to. The security standards used by their platforms are routinely updated and enhanced to handle new threats.

Not Having an Organizational Governance Policy

API governance can be considered a form of API maintenance and is an important part of API management. The governance policy should encompass documentation; if there is no documentation when APIs are first set up, it can be very difficult to go back to properly inventory them, particularly if an enterprise has many APIs. A governance policy is also necessary to track which APIs can be accessed by which parties, who owns the APIs, and who is responsible for maintaining them. Without a clear picture of its API environment, an enterprise can suffer from a lack of agility as it tries to function without knowing exactly what APIs they have, which ones are secured (if any) and who should have access to them.

Best Practice: Establish during the design and development processes who owns the APIs and are responsible for their security. Documenting clearly is advisable, especially as an API evolves. Best Practice: Require a minimal level of API security. The minimum level of API security would include these three (3) basic security mechanisms. First, basic authentication can be used at the front end, requiring usernames and passwords. This mechanism has, over-time, become less and less recognized as a responsible and vigorous response. Second, incorporating Internet Protocol (IP) address white listing so only certain IP addresses may access the API. Third,authorization processes can segregate the data and information needs of the originating request, allow appropriate access based on level access definitions.

There is a distinct difference between simply building an API and designing and developing an API that has the security features that allow it to reliably address the needs of the users. Here are some common API security mistakes to be aware of and helpful best practices for avoiding them.

No Plan for API Security

Not prioritizing API security during development can be attributed to apprehension about tackling API security, a lack of expertise on the subject or reluctance to being held responsible for any security complications that arise. Also, many times, organizations want to develop quickly, and API security is not seen as a priority to move a product to production. However, not having an action plan in place for worst-case scenarios could leave an enterprise severely compromised in the event of an attack.

Best Practice: Security should be a main focus during the development of an API, not an afterthought. There are many different development tools available that can be used to ensure an API has the proper security features it needs.

Leaving APIs Exposed

Implementing an API with no mechanisms in place for verifying who is trying to gain access and whether they have the appropriate authority exposes both the API and any connected digital assets to hackers and bots searching for vulnerabilities and will gain access to exposed APIs and mine for sensitive data.

Best Practice: Implement API security — even if it is minimal. This can include incorporating white listing so that only certain IP addresses are allowed. Basic authentication can be used at the front end requiring usernames and passwords. You can take security a step further by instituting multi-factor authentication at the frontend, followed by some form of authorization check so that the appropriate users have access to certain types of information. There also should be a check point at the back end of an API.

Homegrown API Security

The risk with keeping API security in-house is that error scan occur, even if security was a priority during development. There can be loopholes in the code — API code that is poorly written could be easy to hack and is a security risk. Another factor to consider is the effort and time required by an enterprise’s developers to ensure that security standards are updated frequently and are effective. This is likely to occur at the expense of other projects and result in technical debt.

Best Practice: Use third-party API security providers,like Ping Identity, that keep up to date with the latest in API security for you so you don’t have to. The security standards used by their platforms are routinely updated and enhanced to handle new threats.

Not Having an Organizational Governance Policy

API governance can be considered a form of API maintenance and is an important part of API management. The governance policy should encompass documentation; if there is no documentation when APIs are first set up, it can be very difficult to go back to properly inventory them,particularly if an enterprise has many APIs. A governance policy is also necessary to track which APIs can be accessed by which parties, who owns the APIs, and who is responsible for maintaining them. Without a clear picture of its API environment, an enterprise can suffer from a lack of agility as it tries to function without knowing exactly what APIs they have, which ones are secured(if any) and who should have access to them.

Best Practice: Establish during the design and development processes who owns the APIs and are responsible for their security. Documenting clearly is advisable, especially as an API evolves.

Aaron’s passion for technology drives him to find innovative ways to help advance organizations through technology.