API Security: Threats, Tools, and Best Practices

Tzvika Shneider
Tzvika Shneider
December 5, 2023
min to read

What Is API Security Scanning?

API security scanning refers to the process of identifying and mitigating vulnerabilities within application programming interfaces (APIs). By examining the structure and the data flow of APIs, this process aims to uncover security risks that could lead to unauthorized data access, data manipulation, or service disruptions. 

Scanning APIs is a critical aspect of securing web applications, which increasingly rely on APIs for their functionality. These scans can be conducted manually or automated through specialized software tools. 

Automated scanning offers the advantage of speed, consistency and coverage, allowing for regular security assessments without significant resource allocation. This ongoing scrutiny helps in maintaining the security integrity of APIs throughout their lifecycle, from development to deployment.

The Importance of API Security

APIs are a key component of modern software applications, enabling different systems and services to interact. This interaction, however, opens up avenues for cyber threats. A single vulnerability in an API can expose sensitive data or allow unauthorized control, leading to significant security breaches. 

Ensuring API security is crucial for protecting data but also for safeguarding the integrity of applications and the trust of users. The importance of API security transcends technical considerations, potentially impacting an organization's financial health and brand image.

With regulations like GDPR and CCPA imposing strict penalties for data breaches, API security becomes a compliance issue. It is essential for organizations to implement robust API security measures to avoid financial penalties, reputational damage, and legal repercussions.

The Process of API Security Scanning

The API security scanning process typically involves the following steps:

  1. API Discovery: Discovering all existing APIs, often involving an automated scan of the local network or application source code.
  2. API Security evaluation: Evaluating APIs against known security standards and vulnerabilities, such as those listed in the OWASP Top 10 for APIs. This evaluation can detect issues like broken authentication, excessive data exposure, and lack of rate limiting.
  3. API Security testing: Once potential vulnerabilities are identified, testing to confirm these weaknesses. 

Fix verified vulnerabilities: Providing actionable insights and remediation steps to address the identified security issues. API Security testing technologies provide significantly lower false-positives as compared to other scanning softwares.

Top 3 Challenges in API Security Scanning

Let’s look at some of the challenges in implementing API security scanning and how to overcome them.

SAST and Dast Tools Yield Many False Positives and Negatives

When scanning APIs, it’s important to manage false positives—where the scanning tool incorrectly flags a safe element as a threat—and false negatives, where real threats go undetected. False positives is a waste of resources, diverting attention from actual vulnerabilities. False negatives leave undiscovered risks in the system, potentially leading to security breaches. 

Achieving a balance where the scanning process reliably identifies true vulnerabilities without overwhelming developers with false alarms is crucial. Leveraging API Security Testing solutions can overcome this challenge as these tools understand the application’s context and employ advanced algorithms to reduce false positives and negatives.

Scalability and Performance Impacts

As organizations grow, so do their API ecosystems, which can lead to scalability challenges in security scanning processes. Traditional scanning tools might not be efficient in coping with the growing number of APIs. In addition, scanning processes can impact the performance of APIs, leading to slower response times or downtime.

Employing scalable cloud-based scanning solutions and scheduling scans during off-peak hours are strategies to mitigate these challenges. Optimizing scans to focus on critical areas without compromising comprehensive coverage ensures scalability and maintains performance. 

Keeping Up with Rapidly Evolving Security Threats

The dynamic nature of cybersecurity means that new vulnerabilities and attack vectors are constantly emerging. API security scanning tools and processes must evolve at a comparable pace to stay effective.

Continuous improvement and regular updates to scanning technologies are vital to keeping up with these changes. Advanced API testing tools Incorporate machine learning and AI to adapt to new threats more rapidly. These technologies can analyze patterns to predict and identify novel or unknown vulnerabilities, enabling proactive security measures.

Growing usage with undocumented and Shadow APIs

Applications are built upon APIs, and as these evolve, API usage increases. However, developers often use API leaving them undocumented or shadowed APIs when building their applications. Overlooking these APIs during the API scanning process can result in missed potential risks. Modern API scanning tools can automate API discovery, without overlooking potentially vulnerable APIs.

Top Most Popular API Security Scanning Tools 

1. Pynt

Used by 2000+ organizations and 4500+ users, Pynt is a lightweight, robust and fully automated API Security Testing platform designed for conducting security scans. It leverages a unique attack-technology, exposing real API threats through simulated attacks. Pynt identifies all APIs in use, performs attacks in real-time, then provides fix automation to the exploited vulnerabilities, covering OWASP Top 10 API vulnerabilities as well as Pynt Top 10 list, and more.

Pynt integrates easily into continuous integration/continuous deployment (CI/CD) pipelines, allowing developers to automate security checks as part of their development process.

Pynt's API Security Testing Dashboard

2. ZAP

The Zed Attack Proxy (ZAP), originally created by the OWASP project, is a popular free security tool and is actively maintained by a large community of volunteers. It can find security vulnerabilities in web applications and APIs while you are developing and testing your applications. 

ZAP provides automated scanners as well as a set of tools for finding security vulnerabilities manually. Its features include intercepting proxy server, web spider, passive and active scanners, and dynamic SSL certificates. 

Source: devops.com

3. Postman

Postman is an API platform designed to enhance and simplify every stage of the API lifecycle. Postman offers a feature called Secret Scanner. This tool is specifically engineered to identify and mitigate the risk of exposed secrets within public workspaces and documentation. 

Secret Scanner examines various elements such as collections, global variables, environment variables, API schemas, and documentation present in public workspaces. It protects against potential threats by preventing unauthorized access to any exposed secrets.

Postman users use Pynt native Postman integration to automatically scan their APIs for vulnerabilities, and shift left API security as early as from the development stage. 

Source: Postman

4. Burp Suite

Burp Suite is a platform for web application security testing, with capabilities extending to API security. It offers automated and manual testing tools, allowing for detailed inspection and testing of web APIs. 

Burp Suite's scanner can automatically detect various types of vulnerabilities in APIs, while its proxy tool lets users analyze and manipulate the traffic between their browser and the server. This makes it possible to uncover nuanced vulnerabilities that automated scans might miss.

Source: PortSwigger (Burp)

Best Practices: Choosing the Right API Security Scanning Solution

Here are some best practices for ensuring you're choosing the most effective security scanning solution for your APIs:

Conduct Regular Scans Automatically

Conducting regular security scans is crucial for maintaining the integrity of API security. By scheduling scans at consistent intervals, organizations can identify and mitigate vulnerabilities before they are exploited. Regular scanning not only helps in catching newly introduced vulnerabilities during updates or new releases but also in reassessing the risk level of previously identified issues as the application's context evolves.

Moreover, regular scans facilitate compliance with industry standards and regulations by demonstrating a commitment to ongoing security efforts. Organizations should establish a scanning cadence that aligns with their release cycle and risk profile, adjusting the frequency based on specific factors such as the criticality of the application, regulatory requirements, and historical security data.

Integrate API Security Scanning into Your SDLC

Integrating security scanning into the Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC) embeds security practices into the application development process. This proactive approach ensures that security considerations are made at every stage, from design to deployment, making it easier to address vulnerabilities early on when they are typically less complex and costly to fix. Embedding security scans into the SDLC encourages a shift-left approach, where security is not an afterthought but a fundamental aspect of development.

Choose a tool that easily integrates with your SDLC, and facilitates automation and collaboration among developers, security teams, and operations. This includes using API security scanning tools compatible with DevOps tools, providing training on security best practices, and establishing clear protocols for addressing discovered vulnerabilities.

Continuously Update Security Measures Based on Emerging Threats

Organizations should have a process in place for quickly implementing security patches and updates to their APIs and underlying infrastructure. This agility is crucial for responding to zero-day vulnerabilities and other emerging threats. 

Regular security training for developers and security personnel alike ensures that the team is capable of addressing new challenges as they arise, maintaining the resilience of API security measures over time.

Don’t Just Scan APIs, Conduct Active Security Testing

While scanning your APIs is a critical component of API security, it should be complemented by active security testing techniques. These methods involve simulating real-world attacks and evaluating the system’s response, providing insights into how an attacker might exploit existing vulnerabilities. Advanced API security testing tools can perform active testing in addition to passive scanning of vulnerabilities.

Incorporating active security testing into the API security strategy offers a deeper understanding of the application's security posture, revealing potential weaknesses in the authentication, authorization, and overall design. Regularly conducting active security testing can help identify and validate impactful API security threats.

Choosing the right API Security Testing solution: Pynt vs Generic DAST solutions

Related content: Read our guide to API security best practices

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