Ten Things Your API Security Solution Must Do: Part I

March 3, 2022 | by Ameya Talwalkar

API security is ranked as a top priority in 2022 for enterprises and security leaders worldwide, but in a market crowded with vendors, how can you find the right fit for your organization? With new API security startups showing up on the horizon seemingly every third week, all with different messaging, it can be a struggle to decide which vendor will meet your API security needs.

The Recommended Approach —Shield Right While Shifting Left

The Shift Left movement was designed to improve API security by uncovering and remediating errors during development. Unlike some API security vendors who say Shift Left is failing, we believe strongly these efforts are working and should not be abandoned. However, many experts, including those at Cequence, do not think that Shift Left is a complete API security solution, nor is it a replacement for best-in-class API protection — even a perfectly coded API is susceptible to an attack.

Instead, a Shield Right While Shifting Left approach is recommended. This is where you deploy inline protection for your APIs complemented by visibility, inventory tracking, risk assessment, and remediation. Here’s my reasoning: dynamic application security testing (DAST) and static application security testing (SAST) approaches use a battery of tests and techniques to break APIs. However, attackers can always come up with new and innovative ways of attacking your APIs not covered by your DAST tools. In these cases, you need ways to protect your APIs from an attack, but your options are somewhat limited to include:

  • Web Application Firewalls (WAFs) that protect web applications from known runtime threats missed by static and dynamic code analysis. However, WAFs struggle to protect APIs and are ineffective in defending against unknown and automated attacks.
  • First-generation bot prevention tools that rely heavily on client-side integration, which cannot be done effectively for an API, making these tools largely obsolete for API protection.
  • API-specific tools that focus on helping you find and address coding errors before publication but are unable or have limited ability to detect AND prevent attacks natively.

With the Shift Left while Shielding Right approach in mind, here are five of the ten criteria your API security solution must meet to ensure comprehensive API protection.

#1 Provide an Outside-in View of Your API Attack Surface Area and Risk Exposure

Look for an API security solution that gives you an attacker’s view, from the outside looking in, of your external API assets across all deployment locations including multiple clouds, data centers, service mesh, SaaS, and hybrid. It should do this without requiring the deployment of an agent or any other software. All APIs should be intelligently classified and assigned risk scores to help you prioritize remediation, protection, and deployment steps.

Modern enterprises have APIs hosted across data centers, multiple clouds, and service mesh environments, some of which may be unknown to security teams. At the same time, organizations adopting faster DevOps cycles will often publish APIs in the environment of their choosing without the knowledge of their security counterparts. Often referred to as shadow APIs, these can cause security gaps and were responsible for many of the API incidents seen in 2021 (e.g., Clubhouse, Experian, and Peloton). These APIs are often in staging mode with access to production data, API performance monitoring servers, third-party APIs, and other sensitive data, exposing them to attackers. Your API security solution must map all your APIs across any hosting environment with the same outside-in view that an attacker might see. Once discovered, every API must be classified and assessed for security risk to help you prioritize which APIs to secure first.

Pitfalls to Avoid

  • Stay away from run-time deployment with a limited set of integration points. You want to avoid those that ONLY tie into edge devices, ONLY with load balancers, or ONLY API gateways. This limited visibility may lead to a false sense of security. Other hosting environments could be completely unknown to your security teams and therefore left unprotected from threats.
  • Don’t confuse this with more traditional Attack Surface Management tools as they are not API-centric and lack the classification and risk scoring capabilities modern enterprises need.

#2 Perform Runtime Discovery and Cataloging of APIs

Your API security solution must provide an inside-out view that complements the outside-in view with continuous API discovery, cataloging, and risk assessment at runtime. It should support a variety of API types such as XML/SOAP, REST, and GraphQL. It should also group APIs by department, server, function, and location while allowing you to assign ownership with appropriate access control. Policy-based discovery alerts based on shadow API findings integrated into your SIEM/SOAR system to remove human involvement and improve efficiency are another must-have for an enterprise-grade API security program.

API breaches commonly occur due to unknown and unprotected APIs. Therefore, discovering shadow APIs in various hosting environments is a critical step in starting your API security program.

Pitfalls to Avoid

  • Avoid API security tools that can’t handle certain API types.
  • Avoid API security tools that compromise privacy and governance policies due to lack of proper access control and grouping of APIs in their dashboard.
  • Avoid API security tools that don’t have SIEM/SOAR integrations and automated responses to shadow APIs.

#3: Provide Continuous Data Governance and Risk Assessment

Your API security solution must continuously assess API transactions for data governance violations. Based on the definition of sensitive data, governance violations can mean different things to those in finance, retail, healthcare, and other types of industries. Regardless, the solution must look for unintentional leakage of sensitive data elements through insecure, unauthenticated, or unauthorized APIs. Another must-have data governance feature is to deny access to certain entities as mandated by your business, regulators, and law enforcement. Most enterprises are banned from doing business with entities located in the OFAC list of countries. Your API security solution must be able to enforce all such restrictions as part of the data governance function.

Unintentional sensitive data leakage or theft via an attack can result in significant financial and regulatory violations. Your API security solution must ensure that you can continuously assess data usage by APIs and initiate remediation and prevention steps when violations are discovered.

Pitfalls to Avoid

  • Avoid Inflexible and opaque solutions that result in high false-positive rates due to lack of tunable detection based on industry, use-case, and context.
  • Be wary of complete reliance on ML/AI with no manual override possible, which can lead to a large number of false positives.
  • Stay away from solutions that rely on third-party enforcement and can result in extended data exposure and governance violations.

#4 Assess and Enforce API Specifications Conformance

Your API security solution must use API specifications to protect APIs in three different ways:

  1. Integrate with CI/CD pipelines to consume API specifications in pre-production environments, looking for potential vulnerabilities before APIs go live.
  2. Validate runtime API behavior against the specifications, flagging any deviations and initiating alerts for remediation.
  3. For legacy APIs where no specifications exist, the solution must generate API specifications based on the runtime behavior of APIs and repeat steps one and two for those.

Organizations are rapidly adopting API specification frameworks to improve quality, consistency, and security at runtime. Sometimes though, developers will deviate from specifications or forget to update them as new APIs are published. Specification non-conformance can introduce weaknesses and risks that the security team doesn’t know about and can’t address. The same is true for legacy APIs that are live with no specifications associated with them. Therefore, runtime specification validation, conformance enforcement, and generation are a must-have for your API security solution.

Pitfalls to Avoid

  • Avoid API security tools that do not integrate with your choice of CI/CD pipeline.
  • Don’t get locked into an API security tool that cannot generate specifications in the format you have standardized – Swagger, OpenAPI, etc.
  • Stay away from API security tools that can only initiate alerts on schema non-conformance and are unable to enforce schema conformance.

#5 Natively Protect Against All OWASP API Security Top 10 Threats

Your API security solution must include comprehensive and native protection against all the threats listed in the OWASP API Security Top 10.

APIs and the environment hosting them are vulnerable to similar threats that targeted web applications in the late 90s. As developers migrate business logic from web applications to APIs, the attackers migrate there as well. APIs are easier to attack as they are often well documented via published specifications.

Pitfalls to Avoid

  • Avoid signature-based tools like WAFs that attackers can easily bypass.
  • Stay away from solely DevOps-focused tools and lack a balanced approach to preventing threats while code is being fixed.
  • Avoid using a vendor’s own test suite to validate this functionality. Create a battery of tests based on your APIs and the threats that can target them.
  • Avoid API security tools that cannot natively mitigate threats and rely solely on third-party tools such as WAFs. Such tools cause a time delay between detection and response and higher than average false positives, which leave APIs vulnerable to compromise.

Coming next week: Ten Things Your API Security Solution Must Do: Part II!

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Ameya Talwalkar


Ameya Talwalkar

President, Chief Executive Officer & Founder

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