APIs (Application Program Interface) are an emerging technology in a digital world, integrating applications and building on well-known techniques. Their popularity has surged in recent years, due to the accessibility and ease-of-use they offer to businesses and clients around the world. In fact, it’s a well of possibilities, as they help companies in creating functional opportunities and customers or developers to innovate the industry.
In this article, Alexander Leigh, Managing Director at payment gateway and merchant services provider Total Processing, highlights the importance of ensuring API security levels are at their very best before explaining how this can be done.
When data is made available through API, enterprises can pursue business opportunities and follow new revenue streams. With several using this option by creating it in open source, such as Microsoft’s Windows, it encourages the development of more features. This open approach can improve partnerships, cloud integration, and even enhance the quality of service to customers. However, if third parties have access to sensible data, so do hackers.
Users and developers are essentially given a map to the core of the application, and an in-depth understanding of its implementation and details that would’ve otherwise remain hidden. This can give black-hat hackers valuable information and clues, such as insight into internal objects or internal database structure. Thus, the availability and visibility that makes APIs such a powerful tool are also opening them up to security risks.
Whether a small or large business, any company can be open to cyber security risks unfortunately. Snapchat suffered a major data breach back in 2014 that affected around 4.6 million people. The leak was indirectly blamed on insecure APIs, as hackers gained access to users’ phone numbers. A major business witnessed the dangers of sharing the functionality and data between applications. Unfortunately, similar issues can happen within even more secure domains, such as the payment sector.
Clients have access to data through payment gateways, which implies that their personal and financial information alike falls in the risk an API can have. That means that sensitive information can be hacked into and used by malicious third parties. In spite of their worldwide use and popularity, it is clear that APIs have vulnerabilities that can be exploited. That is why it’s crucial to use a secure gateway from reliable providers and find the best option that makes customers feel safe. A strong payment gateway should provide the following:
- Gives customers a wide array of payment options so that no transaction is lost.
- Provides many transaction enhancing tools so that the merchant can expand the scope of his online business.
- Strong with risk management and fraud containment activities.
- Features which lets the merchant keep up with the changing online transaction environment.
Before understanding what needs to be done to make APIs more secure, first, we must gain knowledge of the potential attack vectors that may interfere with secure transactions of data, information, or money.
- Parameters – The most common form of attack is SQL injections, which is an attempt at manipulating the system that exploits the data sent to an API. This includes URL, query parameters, HTTP headers, or several others. It’s an exploitation of the application’s behavior.
- Identity – This form of attack targets API keys, which can usually stay hidden inside the code of a calling client application. They are identification keys that comprehend which application is calling for the API and often used for client management or rate limiting. That way, a more popular app cannot monopolize the API to the detriment of others. While developers often conceal these codes, they are easy to find and exploit.
- Man-in-the-Middle – The attacker moves in between the sender of data and the receiver. They might pose as one or the other, and use the opportunity to exploit or steal unencrypted data or sensitive information. It’s a common threat to APIs that are not secured using SSL/TLS or implementing it wrong.
The stakes are high, and the ability to secure transportation of data is of paramount importance in the API world. In spite of their best efforts, developers still make mistakes that compromise their security, and adjustments should be made for future improvement.
It Needs to Start During Development
One of the greatest mistakes developers make is failing to create an API without security in mind. That places both the application and the data at risk. While the concept itself seems foolproof, the code often lacks in the security department. The solution would be for it to be manually checked by an expert, both during development and before release. Careful testing is crucial to ensuring the security of the application, so attack vectors will be unable to breach it. Prevention is key and easier than fixing future issues. That is why matters such as documentation are vital.
Developers should have it ready to express clearly how to call an API, what data will it return, in what format, and, more importantly, what errors should developers expect. That goes beyond the documentation of who has access to view, edit, or delete the data. It implies the need for a secondary authentication, such as machine ID, which most developers neglect.
One efficient way is to create a schema that will validate all incoming data. It’s one of the best solutions against parameter attacks, by creating a “cookbook” that will mitigate some of the vulnerabilities. For a schema to be useful, though, it should be restrictive, detailed, and using explicit whitelisting, typing, ranges, and sets. It’s often that these terms are too broad and fail at identifying all potential threats. If implementation starts early, developers can use their understanding of the API to constrain inputs. This goes for XML and JSON data types alike, as there are various schema languages to help create restricted content models or even a constrained structure.
TSL/SSL Encryption Should Be a Necessity, Not A Luxury
Calls for an API can come from untrusted sources. Many developers commit a major mistake when failing to implement TSL/SSL when it’s accessed through a non-browser application. That is often the case, for example, when it’s called from a smartphone. In the 21st century, adding TSL/SSL encryption should no longer be a luxury, but an absolute requirement. However, it should also be implemented correctly because it’s the most effective way to secure an API against man-in-the-middle attacks. First off, it provides integrity in data exchanges and access tokens, such as those in OAuth.
Also, TSL/SSL provides certificates for authentication on the client’s side. At the very least, a basic model is easy to implement because it doesn’t require any extra libraries. It’s often in the standard framework of an API and included in the language library. The issue here stands that it offers the lowest security option out of all the common protocols. It’s less than OAuth 1.0a or OAuth2. That means there are no advanced settings for using it, only the regular username plus password in Base64 code. That is why it’s crucial to make TSL/SSL a necessity. Otherwise, the username and password could be decoded with ease.
Focus On Mastering Existent Measures Before Creating New Ones
When it comes to making APIs more secure, developers should cease creating new protocols and instead use those already proven to be efficient. There are excellent options in practice, so there is no reason to add more API security frameworks to the list. What isn’t fully understood yet is that the issue is not within the measures themselves, but how they are implemented.
What needs to be done to make APIs secure is simple on the surface: treat security as a different tier. Unfortunately, it’s a problem that experts currently have. It’s a viable solution to a complicated problem. For one, it would free the developer to focus on matters such as design and smooth integration between apps. Furthermore, this could place issues of API security in the hands of an expert, who will treat it better and more focused. They will be allowed to create their own schema of validation that will protect against attacks. This includes SQL or script injections that will more easily be recognized by a well-established security protocol after scanning the raw input.
Another prevented attack would be denial-of-service (DoS) because the networking infrastructure could be leveraged to instantly detect network-level attacks or exploits. That implies large messages or complex data structures that consume the resources of the API without need and compromise its ability to function for users. Instead of creating new API security, developers should also make more use of virus protection for all encoded content. It should submit all input to server-grade scanning before transferring the file in a vital system where it could potentially activate with negative impact.
OAuth, for example, is becoming the go-to resource for a reason where it concerns API authorization focused around the user. To APIs even more secure, developers should take other practical factors into consideration, such as IP address, device, access time windows, geolocation, and several others. That way, the schema will not be based on broad identity context that might overlook certain issues. It will be able to successfully track down common patterns of attacks. Developers should root their API security in well-understood and popular options, and use existing libraries instead of taking the time to create their own.
Questioning the Who and the What
It’s crucial to have a definite answer to these questions for “who gains access?” There are myriads of security standards that sometimes make it difficult to settle what makes most sense regarding authorization. However, developers should focus on understanding them in order to assure the security of their API first and foremost.
Managing all the security-related elements of an API is vital. It needs to be comprehensive and smoothly assure the integration of the app while enforcing the collaboration in a safe environment. However, the most important lesson to take to make APIs more secure is that the attention should focus more on how they’re implemented. The potential is already there, so all that’s required is a careful, clever, and concise way to use it. A poorly written code is a dangerous one.