2023 OWASP API Security Top 10 Best Practices
After four long years since the original…
Modern application programming interfaces (APIs) offer a great example of the law of unintended consequences. With their openness and ability to offer nearly universal connectivity between applications and data sources, they have transformed IT and the businesses that deploy them. However, that same openness also makes APIs ripe targets for abuse. This article explores the nature of API abuse and offers some solutions to address this most serious security problem.
API abuse, like most forms of hacking, involves making APIs do things they were not intended to do. When a developer creates an API, it will have a legitimate purpose, such as enabling API clients with proper permission to invoke the API to receive the data it represents. Pretty much any other use of that API could be considered abuse.
API abuse takes many forms, but it mostly involves either disrupting the API, gaining improper access to it, or changing the API or its clients for malicious purposes. Some API abuse exploits API security vulnerabilities, such as those caused by misconfiguration or poor version control. It is also possible, however, to abuse an API through otherwise legitimate means.
An attacker can abuse an API though a wide variety of techniques. The most common, though, are injection attacks, data scraping, Broken Object Level Authorization (BOLA), Broken Function Level Authorization (BLFA), exploiting vulnerabilities, and denial of service (DoS) attacks.
In some cases, API abuse is entirely unintentional. The API is functioning securely, but it becomes so popular that it slows down or suffers from frequent outages. This can lead to operational and reputational problems for the business that created the API.
The consequences of API abuse are comparable to the negative impacts one suffers from cyber attacks in general. An abused API can result in a data breach or malicious destruction of data. It can lead to compliance problems, such as when an API attack causes a violation of consumer privacy laws. DoS attacks can cause system outages that affect other areas of IT and the business as a whole.
API abuse also has consequences for the APIs themselves and the people who are responsible for them. Abuse incidents are embarrassing and stressful to handle. They are a distraction, and could easily affect the careers of the people who were responsible for preventing them. Remediation requires money, which can starve other projects of resources.
More broadly, API abuse can negatively affect an entire business. Given that APIs are often the core of a digital transformation initiative, then problems with availability and security will diminish the transformation’s potential. And, once a transformation project’s reputation is tarnished, it can be difficult to reestablish its good name.
It is possible to mitigate the risk of API abuse to a great extent, and it’s not even that difficult if one has the right tools. Most API management and security solutions provide countermeasures that prevent the types of attacks described above. For example, API owners can block many forms of DoS attacks by enforcing a rate limiting policy, which restricts the number of API calls an API will handle from a single IP address.
Best practices to prevent API abuse include:
APIs are vulnerable to abuse. Their openness and ability to interoperate almost universally make them a great target. Abuse can take the form of DoS attacks, injection attacks, and data scraping. Countermeasures are readily available, however. They include implementing controls over API access, rate limiting, and input validation. API abuse is a serious problem, but it is one that can be solved.
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