In this post, we feature a comprehensive article on How to Automate an API Security Program Without Adding Staff. In the modern world, data is important to both the providers as well as the consumers. The emergence of data science certifies this fact. For certain organizations, the entire business model is built on the exchange of information.
Let’s take the example of a ride-sharing firm. Typically, such a business doesn’t own the vehicles that it offers to its customers. Instead, the business owns a database of vehicle owners and willing drivers, a list of passengers that will pay for some ride, and an app that can instantly connect a rider with a driver via an API. A cut of the fare makes up for the profit for the ride-sharing business.
APIs are at the core of important data exchanges happening among different types of businesses. Because data is always at the risk of theft, security is an un-passable aspect of APIs.
Before we delve into how to automate an API security program without adding staff, let’s first understand what an API is, why are they so important for organizations, and some other basic stuff.
1. API Definition
An application programming interface, or API, represents a set of communication protocols, subroutine definitions, and tools for building software. In other words, an API is a set of clearly defined methods that make communication possible amongst various software components.
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1.1 The Importance of API
APIs are the modern way in which businesses exchange as well as monetize data and services. Because APIs allow machine-to-machine data retrieval, accessing data becomes much faster.
Virtually every popular application today comes with an API that lets the same to integrate with other apps as well as data sources. A typical modern mobile app makes use of about 10 to 15 APIs for transferring insightful data to and from the app.
Aside from mobile apps, single page applications i.e. SPAs also rely heavily on APIs. The efficiency and ability of APIs have led organizations to offer their data to third-party developers and others via APIs as the multi-tier, core business offerings.
1.2 APIs and Security
Despite their immense usefulness, APIs are a tough nut to crack when it comes to securing them in order to allow the faster exchange of data without creating any kind of risk for the parent company or associated brand.
Security teams need to conduct stringent security checks on APIs for potential vulnerabilities and security risks. APIs that are insufficiently secure can lead to severe data breaches that have happened in the past, happening right now, and would likely continue to happen in the future.
Instagram, Symantec, and T-Mobile are some of the few bigger names that have suffered greatly due to data breaches resulting due to insecure APIs.
Damage caused by APIs can be significant due to the fact that most of them are designed to serve loads of data without proper security measures in place.
Hence, it is important for brands and organizations relying on multiple APIs for their numerous applications to design and apply a strict API security program. Although doing so is possible, it can be really tricky. How? The following section explains the complete situation.
1.3 Securing APIs – A Challenge
Identifying all the APIs in itself poses a great challenge in securing the same. Any developer can create an API in a couple of minutes and, quickly and easily publish it over the internet using public cloud services, such as AWS and Google Cloud.
Often, several changes are made to an API over and over again to improve the offerings. Each change made to the API can potentially introduce newer risks.
More and more APIs nowadays are built on serverless infrastructures to the likes of Amazon Lambda and Azure Functions. Traditional firewalls and gateways fail to protect such an API.
Any typical full-scale organization at present is using hundreds or thousands of APIs for catering to different requirements. This in itself presents a big challenge for securing all of them. Manually overseeing and enforcing security in each of them obviously isn’t a practical option.
The only solution to such a problem is using automation. Automating the security assessments on a continuous basis present a practical solution to the problem.
1.4 Automation is the Solution!
Typically, security teams are overworked and remain short on staff. Hiring skilled security professionals isn’t as easy as it seems.
Hence, adding more security staff for building and executing an API security program isn’t a practical option. Bringing consultants to the scene can be an alternative, however, it can stretch the overall budget. So, the viable option is to opt for automation.
Automation can save both time and effort on devising and executing an API security program. Automated programs offer consistency in repetitive but important tasks, such as analyzing and documenting in-use APIs and enforcing corporate policies for controlling risk.
1.5 Automating an API Security Program Without Adding Staff
Any organization that creates or even uses an API requires an API security framework. Automating an API security program consists of three steps:
- Continuous API discovery and specification creation
- Continuous API specification analysis and inspection
- API policy enablement and enforcement
Continuous API Discovery and Specification Creation
This step simply means knowing what APIs are currently in use and what specifically they need to accomplish. For defining what does APIs are meant to do, gathering API specifications is the key. Nonetheless, several APIs exist without any specification.
Hence, the automated API security program needs to have a service that creates specifications for those APIs that are not having any. The specification creation service also needs to continuously monitor as well as discover new, unregistered APIs.
Often, developers document their APIs initially. However, updating the documentation every time a change is introduced to the API isn’t a general practice. Hence, there is a need for an automated tool that collects such information and accordingly updates the API specification.
Continuous API Specification Analysis and Inspection/Analyzing APIs for Security Threats
The next step is performing a security check every time an API operation changes. Following questions need to be answered:
- Does the API have the correct data encryption?
- Is the API having a proper authentication?
- What data sources is the API authorized to access?
- What is the level of availability of the API?
- What kind of authorization policy is being applied to the API?
In order to avoid an API data breach, it is important for the API security team to know the present security state of every API belonging to the organization or brand.
Manual API analysis is limited to a small number of APIs. For hundreds and thousands of APIs, continuous automated API analysis is the go-to option. Thankfully, there are automation tools available that can check for potential vulnerabilities in an API.
Better automation tools are also able to generate security tasks along with recommended changes for developers to dissolve all API security issues. Such tools can also general alerts upon coming across an API’s functional operations straying from its specifications.
API Policy Enablement and Enforcement
The last step is to create and enforce security policies. There’s one very important part of API security program that necessitates for manual intervention. It is policy creation. It’s only afterwards that automation can be used for enforcing the security policy.
In order to form a basis for the API security policy, two questions need to be answered:
- Who will be able to use the API?
- What level of sensitivity and regulatory oversight does the API have?
Traditionally, API policy enforcement concerning authentication, availability, and encryption was done at the network gateway layer. However, this approach has lessened in terms of practicality and scalability as modern applications rely on mobile systems and cloud services.
Often, application developers leverage authentication, availability, and encryption zones provided via SDKs or cloud services. For such cases, an automated service that is able to integrate with these services is the recommended approach for enforcing the API security policy.
2. Automate an API Security Program – Conclusion
That sums up the process of automating an API security program without adding staff. Now, you can get started with securing all of your APIs.
APIs are pivotal to any modern application. DevOps personnel loves them and security teams can also learn to understand their value once they are able to build and automate a capable API security program.
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