API Scanning: 4 Key Components and How to Use Them Effectively

Ofer Hakimi
Ofer Hakimi
January 27, 2024
min to read
API Scanning: 4 Key Components and How to Use Them Effectively

What Is API Scanning?

API scanning is the automated inspection of APIs for potential vulnerabilities or security threats. This process is crucial because APIs often contain sensitive data, and any breaches could lead to severe consequences, including data theft or loss, financial damage, and system compromise.

API scanning is not just about identifying vulnerabilities. It also involves understanding how these vulnerabilities can be exploited and determining the best ways to prevent these exploitations. The goal is to ensure that your APIs are as secure as possible, protecting both your data and your users.

This is part of a series of articles about API security

Key Components of API Scanning Tools 

1. Endpoint Analysis

Endpoint analysis involves inspecting each API endpoint to identify potential vulnerabilities. This includes checking for insecure endpoints, which could be exploited by hackers, as well as identifying any endpoints that are not functioning as expected.

Endpoint analysis is vital because it helps uncover any hidden or forgotten endpoints that could be exploited. It also makes it possible to understand how data is being transmitted and processed through the API, which can be useful for identifying potential vulnerabilities.

2. Parameter and Data Format Analysis

Parameter and data format analysis focuses on the inputs and outputs of an API. This analysis involves scrutinizing the data types, formats, and ranges of parameters that an API accepts or returns. It is crucial to check for vulnerabilities like SQL injection, cross-site scripting (XSS), and other injection attacks that could be triggered by malicious input. 

This process also involves validating input against a schema or set of rules to ensure only appropriate data is processed, thereby reducing the risk of attacks aimed at manipulating or stealing data. Moreover, analyzing the data format helps ensure that the API behaves as expected across different scenarios and with various types of inputs.

3. Authentication and Authorization Checks

Authentication and authorization checks are critical to API scanning as they ensure that only legitimate users have access to specific functionalities within the API. This part of the scanning process involves testing the mechanisms used for verifying user identities (authentication) and their permissions (authorization). It checks for flaws in token generation, session management, and access controls. 

By rigorously testing these elements, organizations can identify and mitigate risks associated with unauthorized access or privilege escalation. This includes verifying that the API correctly handles various authentication schemes (like OAuth, API keys, and JWTs) and enforces appropriate permission levels for different user roles.

4. Rate Limiting and Throttling Tests

Rate limiting and throttling tests are vital to prevent abuse of the API, such as denial-of-service (DoS) attacks or brute force attacks. These tests involve assessing the API's ability to limit the number of requests a user can make in a given timeframe and its capability to throttle users who exceed these limits. 

Effective rate limiting helps in maintaining the API's availability and performance, even under high load or attack conditions. Throttling tests also ensure that the API degrades gracefully under stress by providing feedback to the user, like retry-after headers, rather than failing outright.

API Scanning Challenges

API scanning is an emerging field and introduces several important challenges.

No Clear Standard for Securing APIs

One of the main challenges is that there is no clear standard for securing APIs. This means that each company has to develop its approach to API security, which can be time-consuming and complicated. Furthermore, with a clear standard, it can be easier to determine whether an API is truly secure. This lack of clarity can lead to inconsistencies and gaps in security. 

OWASP's API Security Top 10 offers a valuable framework for understanding common API vulnerabilities, but its broad scope requires further refinement to meet specific organizational needs and adapt to the swiftly changing threat landscape. Notably, the 2023 edition of the OWASP API Top 10 saw the removal of injections, traditionally a prevalent attack category. This change underscores the dynamic nature of API security threats and emphasizes the need for a bespoke, vigilant approach to security, extending beyond the foundational guidance of the Top 10 list.

Managing False Positives and False Negatives

Another challenge to scanning APIs is managing false positives and false negatives. A false positive is when an API scanning tool incorrectly identifies a vulnerability, while a false negative is when it fails to identify a real vulnerability. False positives can lead to unnecessary work and wasted resources, while false negatives can leave vulnerabilities undetected and open to exploitation.

Most Web Application Scanners Are Not Designed for API Security

One of the significant challenges in API scanning is the inability of most web application scanners to effectively test API security. Traditional scanners are designed to scan HTML-based web applications, but APIs are often built using REST or SOAP, which these scanners are not equipped to handle.

The Constant Evolution of APIs

APIs are dynamic and constantly evolving. New APIs are being developed, and existing ones are regularly updated to add new features or fix bugs. Scanning tools and techniques need to run continuously, and be regularly updated, to keep up with changes to APIs and ensure new vulnerabilities are promptly identified.

Best Practices for Effective API Scanning

Comprehensive Discovery of All API Endpoints

Each endpoint in an API represents a potential point of attack for cybercriminals. Therefore, it is important to identify and scan all the endpoints, not just the ones that are commonly used or considered critical. It is essential to identify shadow APIs, which are in use but unknown to IT or security teams. This comprehensive coverage helps in creating a robust security framework that can withstand various types of attacks.

Integration with API Development and Testing Workflows

By integrating API scanning into the development and testing phases, organizations can ensure that the APIs are secure right from the time they are developed. This proactive approach not only helps minimize the chances of security breaches but also reduces the time and effort required to fix any potential vulnerabilities.

Using Dedicated API Scanning Tools

Employing dedicated API scanning tools is crucial for effective and efficient API security analysis. These tools are specifically designed to handle the complexities and unique aspects of APIs, unlike general web application scanners. They can better understand and interpret API-specific protocols and data formats, such as REST, GraphQL, and SOAP. 

Dedicated API scanners are equipped to perform specialized tests, including checking for misconfigurations, improper data handling, and security flaws in custom API logic. They can also automate the process of testing for common vulnerabilities and compliance with standards like the OpenAPI Specification. Utilizing these tools allows for a more thorough and accurate assessment of an API's security posture, enabling organizations to identify and address potential threats more effectively.

Related content: Read our guide to API security testing

API Security with Pynt

Pynt's approach to API security emphasizes a 'shift-left' methodology, focusing on early discovery and resolution of vulnerabilities. This proactive stance in the software development life cycle allows for:

  • Early Detection: Identifying API vulnerabilities early in the development process, reducing potential security risks.
  • Leverages functional tests to detect complex business logic scenarios, providing targeted security insights.
  • Seamless Integration: Facilitating easy integration with existing development tools and pipelines, enhancing developer productivity without compromising security.
  • Comprehensive API Discovery: Automated discovery of APIs, ensuring complete visibility from development to production, crucial for identifying shadow APIs and other hidden risks.

These aspects collectively enhance the overall security posture by addressing API vulnerabilities at their inception, rather than as an afterthought.

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