Understanding Your API Vulnerabilities and How to Prevent Exploits

By Renata Budko, Head of Product at Traceable AI

With today’s enterprises, the importance of API security is growing daily due to the extreme pace of API adoption. APIs are fundamentally altering how companies operate both internally and externally. Because more devices and other systems need API-driven solutions, the number of API programs in organizations has increased. While the flexibility of APIs made this rapid growth possible, it also brought along a new set of security issues. As a result, there are an increasing number of APIs that expose business logic and potentially sensitive data, necessitating the urgent need for API-centric security.

Nature of APIs

APIs are used by modern businesses to provide services to their customers. Users communicate with APIs when using a web browser or a mobile app. APIs make it simpler to introduce new items, improve the user experience, and engage with services, companies, and markets. The widespread use of APIs is not surprising, given how much time and money they help save throughout the app development process.

There has been wide adoption of APIs as they provide enterprises with flexibility, simple design, and administration, which opens up options for creativity when implementing new tools, services, and products or managing the ones that already exist.

What is an API exploit?

A program or method that takes advantage of a vulnerability is known as an API exploit. It is a technique for accessing a service, attacking it, or stealing data from it. A weakness in an API’s design that enables attackers to force it to perform actions that the creator did not intend is known as a vulnerability, while the means of using it are called exploits. Before we discuss exploits, let’s first discuss the most prevalent API flaws and the reasons why exploits frequently involve extremely straightforward programming and methodologies.

Common API vulnerabilities

Out of the many API vulnerabilities that could arise, there are three that present the greatest risk of being exploited: 

  • Broken Object Level Authorization (BOLA)
    Occurs when an API client gains access to data that they shouldn’t have. BOLA incidents happen whenever a user requests an object, and the API doesn’t check if they are authorized to access it. This may result in data theft, modification, or deletion depending on the nature of the API and the vulnerability because it enables the reuse of an access token by an attacker to conduct an unauthorized activity. This exploit doesn’t require any password or code hacks.
  • Broken User Authentication
    Occur when attackers are able to assume the identities of other users due to poorly developed API authentication. Attackers can seriously breach an enterprise by exploiting improperly implemented authentication mechanisms, which is made accessible by weak authentication. When hackers are able to steal passwords and user accounts, they can learn users’ identities, and authentication is breached.
  • Excessive Data Exposure
    This is when the API exposes significantly more data than the client actually needs while relying on the client to perform the filtering, this is referred to as excessive data exposure. Attackers have complete control if they go straight to the API.

Three ways to prevent API exploits

Although there are many API vulnerabilities, using best practices can help organizations thwart many of the common API exploits. Here are three ways to help keep your APIs more secure:

Secure API development practices:

  • Principle of least privilege (POLP) – The concept known as the principle of least privilege (POLP) restricts users’ access permissions to only those that are absolutely necessary for them to carry out their responsibilities. Users are only permitted to read, write, or execute the files or resources that are necessary for them to fulfill their duties.
  • Filter fields and functions based on permissions – Whether writing, reading, creating, or deleting a record, APIs should always verify the user’s entitlements for every task. This principle will also help with Zero Trust architecture and addressing excessive data exposure.

Secure API deployment practices:

  • Implement two-factor authentication – Two-factor authentication is a solid way of reducing the risks of API keys.
  • Use different APIs for different applications – Making distinct APIs with unique data dictionaries for each of your apps is the simplest method to prevent excessive data exposure.
  • Implement security testing with broad test coverage and catch API vulnerabilities before APIs are deployed in production.

Runtime API protection:

  • However robust your DevOps is, there are always unknown unknowns. To mitigate the potential impact of the exploits, continuous runtime monitoring should be implemented for API vulnerabilities – static and session-based.
  • Ensure you monitor for unmanaged and shadow APIs – the pace of the API development and the diversity of contributions means some of the APIs may slip through the cracks of managed development and deployment. It is important to discover these discrepancies in the runtime.
  • Prevent brute force attacks – A brute-force attack is a method of cracking passwords that involve repeatedly attempting all conceivable combinations of letters, numbers, and symbols until you find the one that works. In this instance, time out their account, present a CAPTCHA, or both. While the API itself may not be vulnerable, its malicious usage is.

APIs open up a world of possibilities for online applications, but whatever advantages APIs may have can be swiftly overshadowed by exploiting vulnerabilities. While it’s impossible to completely eradicate all threats, knowledge of API vulnerabilities combined with the best practices above are important for any organization that cares about its reputation and its customers.

Renata Budko is an accomplished product and technology leader in the cybersecurity space and currently Head of Product at Traceable AI, a security platform that provides API security for cloud native applications. Traceable AI applies the power of distributed tracing and machine learning to protect your business applications and its data from API based attacks.

Renata is a well respected industry expert, recognized as one of the Top 25 Women Leaders in Cybersecurity of 2022,  with a wide understanding and knowledge of industry trends and technologies in the security space and holds four patents in cloud security.   She has extensive experience in leadership and executive roles across product management and go to market roles.  Prior to Traceable AI, Renata was the Chief Marketing Officer at Wallarm and VP of Products at Winkk. Before that, she co-founded HyTrust (acquired by Cloud Security firm, Entrust) and led product management and marketing.  Renata has been a speaker at VMworld, API security conference, Network Interop, HPWorld, CloudCon and EMC World events as well many regional and online events.

As a leader, Renata is known for her visionary leadership in solving challenging and emerging cybersecurity problems by going where the puck is and using her knowledge and collaborative skills to create growth and educational opportunities for everyone in her immediate and extended teams.

Renata holds MBA and Master of Computer Engineering degrees from UC Davis, CA and a BS in Physics from MIPT, Moscow.

Follow Brilliance Security Magazine on Twitter and LinkedIn to ensure you receive alerts for the most up-to-date security and cybersecurity news and information.