Demystifying API Security

April 8, 2024

Demystifying API Security

API security is no longer another tech buzzword. 

But a pressing concern for CISOs & Engineering leaders, bearing immense weight in safeguarding enterprise interests.

So, what's the path to effective API Security?

The quest for answers might appear elusive at first glance, but it all boils down to the questions you ask. 

These questions wield immense power, shaping your security endeavors and determining the efficacy of your chosen solutions.

Therefore, asking the right questions is paramount to making informed decisions and tackling API Security challenges effectively. 

The foremost step is the identification of security loopholes you’d like to address within your SDLC. 

Various stages of the SDLC pose distinct challenges: 

1. Lack of API Inventory: Identifying all APIs within an organization proves challenging, leading to vulnerability blind spots.

2. Governance: Ensuring APIs comply with security policies and best practices during development and deployment.

3. API Security Testing: Proactively identifying and rectifying vulnerabilities in APIs before deployment.

4. Attack Detection and Protection: Detecting and mitigating attacks targeting APIs in production environments.

Once you've delineated the stage you seek to address, it's imperative to crystallize your approach from these options:

1. Static Application Security Testing (SAST) solutions

2. Proactive testing platforms

3. API Web Application Firewalls (WAFs)

4. API Gateways

While each solution addresses distinct issues using various approaches, they intersect within the SDLC framework. Some may even offer multifaceted solutions. 

Regardless, here are the questions you should be asking the vendor at each stage: 

Lack of API Inventory:

Most development teams overlook spec-first API design, leaving brownfield applications devoid of API documentation. This oversight lays the groundwork for a plethora of API-related security issues.

So, should API Security Solutions offer a comprehensive API inventory? 


Detecting vulnerabilities without a comprehensive understanding of their origins is akin to shooting arrows in the dark.

And any inventory is also not enough. 

The solution must provide an accurate and comprehensive API Inventory comprising the following: 

- Internal APIs: Facilitating communication among company applications, like microservices APIs.

- External APIs: Internet-facing APIs utilized by web and mobile applications and developers for integration.

- Third-Party APIs: Integrating external APIs into internal systems.

- Authenticated or Unauthenticated APIs

- APIs handling sensitive data

- Infrequently accessed APIs

This differentiation is crucial as it determines the depth and extent of API inventory a solution provides. When evaluating products, consider the following questions:

- How is the inventory compiled? Is it through code analysis, web server access logs, or runtime traffic observation?

- Does the solution differentiate between staging, production, and development environments?

- Can it automatically document APIs and generate OpenAPI Specs?

- Does it provide insights into request and response details and authentication and authorization mechanisms?

These questions are pivotal, as some solutions merely offer a list of paths without providing a comprehensive overview of the API inventory. Without this clarity, enforcing best practices and rectifying misconfigurations becomes an exercise in futility.

API Governance:

Once you've established an accurate API inventory, governance becomes imperative.

 It involves enforcing rules and policies governing API interactions with their environments.

While some solutions claim to assess OpenAPI Spec adherence, this approach is contingent upon developers adopting a spec-first approach. 

But what if they haven't?

Enforcing best practices at rest is feasible post-spec adoption. 

However, enforcing these rules at runtime, uncovering misconfigurations, and addressing server information leaks in response headers pose challenges.

When evaluating governance solutions, consider the following:

- How are rules enforced?

- Which APIs are covered?

- Is the enforcement passive or active?

- How does rule enforcement impact performance?

- Is it applicable across various languages, applications, environments, frameworks, and API gateways?

- Can custom rules and configurations be created?

Pre-Production Testing:

Also known as active testing or API penetration testing, this phase involves continuously testing applications in runtime before going live. Despite its significance, it's often overlooked in API Security evaluations.

To ascertain a product's efficacy in uncovering vulnerabilities, consider the following:

- How are tests generated?

- Are they specific to your application?

- Can authentication and authorization be automated?

- What's the depth and duration of testing?

- Can tests be modified and executed swiftly?

- How are vulnerabilities reported?

Detection & Respond in Production:

In today's landscape, it's not a question of whether your applications are being attacked but rather how frequently.

As you evaluate solutions at the production stage, your objective should encompass a spectrum of actions, from blocking specific attacks, users, or IPs to implementing additional security protocols or rules within API gateways.

To ensure scalability and minimize additional workload for your team, it's crucial to delve into the following questions:

- How valuable are detection alerts to your team, and how efficiently can they be assessed to generate meaningful insights?

- What effort is required from your team to conduct thorough assessments and derive actionable alerts?

- Is the solution inundating your team with excessive data logging, potentially hindering practical analysis?

When scrutinizing solutions for detecting attacks on APIs in production, direct these inquiries to the vendor:

- What attacks are commonly encountered, and how does the solution identify and handle them? 

- Are the detection rules configurable to adapt to evolving threats?s

Another strategy in API security at this juncture involves proactive protection. While some vendors boast of seamlessly detecting and thwarting all API attacks, this claim may seem overly optimistic. 

The reality is that APIs operate with minimal latency and swift response times, making accurate threat detection and prevention challenging.

Should you consider this protection-centric approach, seek clarity from vendors by posing the following questions:

- How does the solution precisely block malicious requests while minimizing false positives?

- What measures are in place to ascertain and mitigate false positives and negatives?

- Can the solution be tailored to accommodate specific security rules and configurations per your organization's needs?


API Security is not a one-size-fits-all solution; it requires a nuanced understanding of your organization's needs and challenges. 

We hope that you can thoroughly evaluate solutions by asking these questions. And as a result, safeguard your digital assets in this increasingly interconnected world. 

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