Protecting APIs in the Face of Rising Automated Threats

  • 8 February 2024
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Protecting APIs in the Face of Rising Automated Threats
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In today's fast-paced digital world, cybersecurity remains a constant concern as threats continue to evolve alongside technological advancements. One crucial area demanding immediate attention is the protection of APIs (Application Programming Interfaces). APIs act as the bridge connecting various software applications, playing a vital role in modern architectures like microservices and cloud integrations. However, their very nature, which involves granting access to sensitive data, makes them enticing targets for cyber attackers. Recent reports from Salt Labs highlight a staggering 681% increase in malicious API traffic in 2022, while VentureBeat reveals a 286% rise in API threats quarter over quarter. Shockingly, within the last 12 months, 41% of organizations encountered API security incidents, with a troubling 63% leading to data breaches or loss. This underscores the urgent need for organizations to prioritize API security measures to safeguard their valuable data and mitigate the risks posed by cyber threats.


The Challenge: Automated API Attacks on the Rise

Protecting the attack surface of APIs poses a unique challenge, especially with the increasing prevalence of automated API attacks. As technology enables attackers to multiply their efforts and exploit vulnerabilities at scale, organizations face the daunting task of defending against these automated threats in real time. The severity of the situation is reflected in OWASP's inclusion of a new API threat category (AP18): lack of protection from automated threats. 

The API threat landscape is in constant flux, demanding vigilance from organizations to safeguard their APIs and web applications. Traditional protection techniques are deemed insufficient as attackers become more creative and specific in their tactics.


Understanding the Importance of APIs

APIs play a pivotal role in facilitating communication between applications, enabling swift data sharing, and crafting enriched user experiences across various sectors such as banking and healthcare. However, their internet-facing nature, essential for their functionality, exposes them to potential exploitation by cybercriminals.


Drivers Behind the Surge in API Attacks

  • Exposure to External Elements: APIs being internet-facing provide opportunities for cybercriminals to exploit vulnerabilities.
  • Quick Development, Overlooked Security: The race to market often leads developers to neglect security aspects, resulting in issues like weak authentication and unencrypted data.
  • Use of Automated Attack Tools: Attackers leverage automated tools for rapid, large-scale attacks, efficiently identifying and exploiting weaknesses.
  • Entangled Ecosystems: Modern applications leverage multiple APIs, creating a complex web. A breach in one API can potentially compromise others.
  • Traditional Security Tools Fall Short: Conventional security mechanisms may not effectively monitor real-time API traffic, leaving room for sophisticated attacks to go unnoticed until significant harm is inflicted.

OWASP Top 10 API Security Risks – 2023

Security Risks 

Threat Agent 

Security weakness


Broken Object Level Authorization

Attackers can exploit vulnerabilities by manipulating object IDs within API requests.

Lack of proper tracking of client state, relying on parameters like object IDs.

Unauthorized access may lead to data disclosure, loss, or manipulation.

Broken Authentication

Authentication mechanisms are exposed, making them susceptible to attackers.

Misconceptions and complexity regarding authentication boundaries.

Attackers can gain complete control of user accounts, compromising personal data.

Broken Object Property Level Authorization

APIs may expose endpoints returning all object properties, a common issue in REST APIs.

Insufficient inspection of API responses, leading to unauthorized access to sensitive object properties.

Unauthorized access may result in data disclosure, loss, or corruption.

Unrestricted Resource Consumption

Exploitation via simple API requests, causing DoS by overloading resources.

APIs lack limits on client interactions or resource consumption.

Exploitation can lead to DoS and increased operational costs.

Broken Function Level Authorization

Exploitation by sending legitimate API calls to unauthorized endpoints.

Confusing authorization checks for functions or resources.

Flaws allow unauthorized access to functionality, potentially leading to data loss or corruption.

Unrestricted Access to Sensitive Business Flows

Exploitation involves understanding the business model backed by the API.

Lack of a holistic view of the API, contributing to prevalence.

Exploitation may hurt the business by preventing legitimate user actions.

Server Side Request Forgery

Exploitation requires finding an API endpoint accessing a URI provided by the client.

Improper validation of URIs in applications, leading to vulnerabilities.

Successful exploitation may lead to internal service enumeration, information disclosure, or DoS.

Security Misconfiguration

Attackers seek unpatched flaws, common endpoints, or services with insecure configurations.

Misconfigurations at any level of the API stack.

Exposes sensitive user data and system details, leading to potential server compromise.

Improper Inventory Management

Unauthorized access through old API versions or unpatched endpoints.

Outdated documentation, lack of inventory, and retirement strategies.

Attackers gain access to sensitive data or take over servers, exploiting deprecated endpoints.

Unsafe Consumption of APIs

Exploiting requires identifying and compromising other APIs/services integrated with the target API.

Developers trust external APIs without proper verification of endpoints.

Successful exploitation may lead to sensitive information exposure or denial of service.

API Threat Modeling: A Holistic Approach

API threat modeling emerges as a structured approach to identify, evaluate, and mitigate potential threats to an API proactively. By providing a comprehensive view of vulnerabilities, organizations can address security concerns preemptively. Steps in API Threat Modeling:

  • Define Security Objectives: Identify what needs protection, considering data confidentiality, integrity, and availability, along with compliance requirements.
  • Characterize the API: Detail functionality, usage scenarios, dependencies, data flows, and entry/exit points. Understand the architecture and identify security zones.
  • Identify Assets and Access Points: Recognize tangible and intangible assets, along with potential attack surfaces (access points).
  • Recognize Potential Threats: Understand possible attack vectors, including parameter attacks, man-in-the-middle attacks, replay attacks, and more.
  • Rank Threats: Prioritize threats based on potential impact and likelihood, using methodologies like OWASP.
  • Mitigate and Control: Devise strategies to mitigate identified threats, involving rigorous authentication, parameter validation, and configuration changes.
  • Continuous Review: Regularly revisit the threat model to account for new threats or changes in the API landscape.

In essence, threat modeling acknowledges, identifies, and mitigates threats, even in the face of automated API attacks.

Countering Automated API Attacks with ThreatModeler

Amidst the evolving threat landscape, automated threat modeling emerges as a powerful tool to counteract automated API attacks. ThreatModeler, an automated tool, eliminates guesswork from creating threat models, allowing professionals with minimal technical understanding to build comprehensive threat models.  


Key features of ThreatModeler include:

  • Out-of-the-box Functionality: Professionals can build threat models with all necessary components, connectors, and users, enhancing the clarity of the API infrastructure.
  • Integration with Threat Libraries: ThreatModeler integrates with threat libraries from OWASP, CAPEC, AWS, and Azure, providing a wealth of threat intelligence.
  • Collaboration Support: Integration with IT ticketing systems drives collaboration, ensuring a collective effort in addressing security concerns.

Securing APIs against the rising tide of automated threats necessitates a proactive approach. API threat modeling, coupled with automated tools like ThreatModeler, empowers organizations to visualize their attack surface, make informed risk management decisions, and stay ahead of evolving cybersecurity challenges. As the API threat environment continues to evolve, embracing comprehensive security measures becomes imperative to safeguard sensitive data and ensure the integrity of digital ecosystems

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