APIs: Why are your APIs primary targets for attackers?

By Vinugayathri Chinnasamy
As APIs continue to revolutionize user experiences, they also add new layers of vulnerabilities that make them attractive targets for attackers

APIs occupy a crucial place in the web and mobile applications today since they are responsible for almost everything you do on the internet, be it – ordering food, buying tickets, downloading music, or checking into a flight.  

What makes them primary targets for attackers? How can you ensure robust API security? Keep reading to find out. 

Why APIs Become Centerpieces of Applications? 

APIs enable connecting any program, software, or data source from across the globe, irrespective of the programming language, platform, or data schema. Running in the background, they help accelerate website/ application performance and drive seamless user experiences. 

Unlike heavy monolithic applications, API-based modern applications are much more flexible, agile, and hassle-free. Developers can keep innovating and improving app functionalities, keeping pace with the changing tech and business landscapes. 

Why are APIs Primary Targets for Attackers? 

Their Very Nature 

APIs, by nature, have access to and expose application logic, sensitive data, databases, and underlying implementation of web and mobile applications using them. Simply put, they are designed to be programmatically accessible. 

This openness and utility enable attackers to easily exfiltrate data, spread malware, etc., by writing malicious programs or software tools to abuse APIs. Their very nature makes them primary targets for attackers and vulnerable to various attacks. 

The Pervasiveness of APIs 

As we move towards headless and microservice architectures, APIs are used across business functions, domains, and industries. They are as useful in education and healthcare as fintech, e-commerce, and IT. They are core parts of modern-day web, mobile, and SaaS applications. They can be found in internal, partner-facing, and customer-facing applications.  

Given their ubiquity, attackers have a wider attack surface and a more interesting range of endpoints to go snooping around for weaknesses and gaps. Since they expose so much of applications' internal mechanics and implementation, APIs are prime targets for attackers. 

Lack of Visibility into the Attack Surface 

There is an increasing number of API endpoints in the application architecture. They are easy to deploy and integrate, allowing developers to keep innovating. They run on different networks and environments. Organisations are leveraging several third-party APIs and components. It is humanly impossible to track and inventory these growing endpoints manually. 

It doesn't help that they run in the background. The organisational silos compound the security challenges – only development teams may know the complete API architecture. So, security teams may be caught completely unaware of API threats. The lack of centralised visibility into the attack surface makes implementing security in web API challenging, making them prized targets for attackers. 

The General Lack of API Security Awareness 

Even though at a high level, it may seem like API security issues are similar to browser-based security issues, they are indeed unique, complex, and challenging. The lack of API security awareness among security and development teams leads to poorly managed and vulnerable endpoints that attackers can easily exploit. 

Use of Security Solutions that Aren't Built for APIs

In continuation of the previous point, organisations tend to use security solutions that aren't purpose-built for APIs. This makes them susceptible to dangerous web applications and API security threats. How so?

  • There is a growing number of API vulnerabilities that are unique and different from web app vulnerabilities.
  • API requests are constantly changing. Traditional solutions, especially firewalls, need manual tuning and configuration to accommodate these changes. And this is an error-prone, time-consuming and costly process. 
  • Clients don't use browsers; they directly access applications, services, or software components. So, traditional solutions relying on browser verification are ineffective. 
  • Traditional solutions, not designed for APIs, are ineffective in stopping automated API traffic and malicious bot attacks. 

Lack of Proper Access Control, Authorization, and Authentication Policies 

Since APIs aren't used for human use, organisations often fail to implement zero-trust policies, giving unrestricted access to data and functionalities. Improper access control, authorisation, and authentication policies make it easy for attackers to bypass security and make APIs vulnerable to attacks.

Other Reasons Why APIs are Prime Attack Targets  

  • Design-level flaws 
  • Implementation flaws 
  • Several API catalogs aren't fully documented 

Conclusion: How Can Organisations Ensure Effective API Security? 

Organisations must choose a risk-based, comprehensive, scalable, and fully managed API security solution like AppTrana API Protection that is specifically designed for APIs. It must provide instant, proactive and effective protection against OWASP Top 10 API risks and other API-specific threats and risks. 

It must ensure automated discovery of all API endpoints, parameters, data types and APIs, API dependencies, and third-party APIs while providing real-time visibility into the traffic hitting API endpoints. The solution must be agile, flexible, and continuously updated to keep pace with the changing threat, business, and technology landscapes. 

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