Protect your API from Internet threat
Last couple of years, APIs have established themselves as an essential part of an enterprise architecture. Security plays a tremendous role in API management as the APIs expose enterprise assets directly to the Internet. However, there is a problem with the common approach to API security. It is highly focused on implementing OAuth and Op and tends to neglect other important aspects of a complete API security solution.
This fictional story illustrates what happens when an individual decides to hack or exploit your APIs and how the IT security manager can counteract such a threat. Two fictitious characters, John (the hacker) and Michael (the security manager) will help us to shape up our simplified storyline.
Multi-faceted aspects of API security
While focusing on threat protection, it is equally important to understand that API security is a much broader topic. The table below summarizes all areas which should be considered as part of an end-to-end API security solution:
John (hacker) has heard that the company Acme Corp based out of HackMeLand, where Michael (Security Manager) works, has recently deployed the Application Programming Interface (API) version of some geo location services they used to sell as a stand-alone application. As many other Internet companies, such as Google, they realized that they can monetize the usage of their core service by making it available to developers for a fee as public API.
John’s guess (and hope!) is that, as they are new to APIs, this first version of their API will be buggy and/or possibly not very well protected.
Although Michael is not an amateur in his business he is relatively new to API security. He understands that while it has much in common with Web applications security, it also has its peculiarities. Michael asks his trusted partner, ApiAcmeConsulting to help.
To begin with ApiAcmeConsulting provides Michael with the ‘whole picture’. To protect something, it is important to understand the different layers between the hacker and the valuable assets (in the case of Acme Corp., their geo location database) and from where the attack can arrive. The diagram below reproduces a common scenario.
The hacker’s weapons
John has a long and despicable record of Web application hacking during which he has developed a few techniques. The OWASP (Open Web Application Security Project) organization is the established authority in Web application security related matters. It keeps track of the vulnerabilities and attacks occurring on the Internet on their website. The list of top 10 Internet threats can be found here1.
Let us give a closer look to the most common ones.
The security manager’s ammunitions
Michael and ApiAcmeConsulting decide to sit together to elaborate a strategy to counter internet threats.
ApiAcmeConsulting suggested to work on the gateway configuration, to enforce physical security and to activate all security policies designed to address the threats described in the previous section.
The API gateways implement the gateway architectural pattern . The objective is to avoid direct access to the Web services and rather have a mediation layer: the gateway.
From a security point of view this makes much sense, as with the gateway we have a single point of security policy enforcement, another common security pattern.
As per the mentioned security pattern the gateway is policy enforcement point (PEP), policy administration point (PAP) and policy decision point (PDP) in one single compon-ent (although different vendors might have different modules for those logical blocks).
API Gateways security rules called policies. Policies can be activated on proxies and implement specific controls to address the different threats. Proxies are logical containers for all the pre and post processing of client requests and might be required before they reach the service itself.
As per ApiAcmeConsulting’s suggestion Michael also instructs his team to integrate the API gateway with their SOC (Security Operating Center) incident management tool. This will ensure that anomalous behaviour is detected and (depending on the gravity) an alarm is triggered.
Assuming he has previously managed to get some valid API keys, John sends a malicious request with recurring XML structures. The gateway checks the request before passing it over to the background geo-location service as part of the normal in-transit policy processing. One of the configured security policies detects that the request is malformed, drops the call and sends an alarm to the incident management tool, which in turn alerts the SOC team.
As first measure, the team can deactivate those keys, block the requestor. Off-line Michael will work with the API business manager to investigate the case further.
Some of the improvements and best practices ApiConsultingAcme could recommend to their customers are:
The way ahead
APIs give businesses a wealth of new and unforseen opportunities to amplify their reach by empowering the larger community of application developers. API security however is not an option, neither should it be treated as stand-alone. Rather the security team has to own it and make sure that API security is aligned, in terms of policies and controls, to the company's overall security strategy.
Vamshidhar Babu Seetha is a Cloud Security Architect at Wipro. Vamshi has over 16 years of Security experience in IT Industry and has an expertise in Cloud Security and Enterprise Security Solutions designing and implementation across various industry verticals across the multiple regions.
Nicola Venditti is a Principal Security Consultant at Wipro Technologies based in Zurich, Switzerland. Nicola has over 15 years of experiences in the IT security industry and has worked on large engagements across the EMEA region.