4 API Security Best Practices To Safeguard Sensitive Data

Jon Morgan Developer Tips, Tricks & Resources

Thanks to the increasing usage of different software solutions, API usage has become an everyday practice. As such, API security is a more prevalent issue in app development than ever before.

SaaS companies have an average of 350 integrations, whereas major SaaS companies like Slack, Zoom and Shopify have 2,000+ integrations. This is great for developers and end users, as Application Programming Interfaces (API) make life easier. 

However, there is an ever-present concern regarding API security, especially public APIs that require third-party logins. Developers are also overburdened to work within unrealistic time frames, raising concerns over quality standards. So, how should companies ensure their data is safeguarded from hackers while utilizing the API ecosystem?

Leveraging API security best practices is how. This article will review the top four security best  practices you can use to secure your APIs from malicious attacks. 

What is API Security?

API security is when you protect APIs from cyberattacks and threats. It’s crucial today because every organization and website has hundreds, if not thousands, of integrated APIs, all of which contain sensitive or private information. 

Successful API security measures have the following steps in place;

  • The API’s processed requests are from valid, verified sources
  • All the processed requests are legitimate
  • All the responses cannot be encrypted or breached in any way

Depending on your organization and the nature of the data, your API implementations are most likely SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) or REST (Representational State Transfer) – two standard protocols used to access web services. 

SOAP is standardized, has built-in error handling and doesn’t require using HTTP. REST has a smaller learning curve, is faster and doesn’t require expensive tools. However, SOAP APIs are also more secure by design. Learn more from this SOAP vs. REST guide to understand these two communication protocols.

Types of API Cyberattacks 

APIs are susceptible to attacks because they usually come with documented information about their structure and how they were created. This helps hackers reverse engineer APIs in their attempts to steal private data. Below are the most common types of attacks.

The DDoS Attacks

Distributed Denial-of-service (DoS) attacks are the most common kind. The attack is carried out on an API by overwhelming its memory through thousands of attacks, which result in the API slowing down and ultimately crashing the web server. Another way this happens is hackers send a vast amount of information in each request instead of thousands of requests.

Stolen Authentication

Arguably, the easiest way to access user data is through stolen authentication. Hackers steal an authorized identity and access the API with it. In most cases, the authentication token gets stolen and then misused. If not the token, cybercriminals will also bypass weak authentication to gain access.

Man-in-the-Middle Attack

A man-in-the-middle attack (MITM) happens when a hacker can intercept the communication between the API and the end-user. This usually happens when there is neither one-way nor end-to-end encryption in place. These vicious attacks can often lead to stolen private data, like login credentials.

4 API Security Best Practices

Now that we’ve covered the importance of API security and the types of cyber attacks to expect, let’s go over four API security best practices to protect your users.

1. Use Strong User Authentication

The primary cause of API security breaches is a lack of authentication or poor authentication. With authentication, you have proof that someone is who they say they are, similar to having a business clearly define its LLC formation purpose statement to prove its legitimacy. 

Since APIs serve as the door to an organization’s database, your APIs must be secured. Using strong user authentication and one way, as it reduces the security risk of losing user authentications.

The best way to accomplish strong user authentication is to either have multi-factor authentication or, even better, have a trusted authorization mechanism, such as OAuth. Either method limits access to web services to only the legitimate users. 

2. Encrypt All Your Online and Offline Data

Encrypting data is essential to protect yourself from various attacks, the most common being MITM attacks. As explained previously, these are when perpetrators access private data, such as login credentials, credit card numbers, account details and other personal information. Data transfers between APIs servers must always be appropriately encrypted to prevent theft. 

According to statistics, 33% of all Americans have been a victim of identity theft, with credit card fraud being the most common.

Companies should cipher all exchanges with the Transport Layer Security (TLS) protocol – the upgraded version of the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) protocol. While you can opt for one-way encryption, two-way encryption is much better and more secure. 

Look at WhatsApp. The application boasts a high level of security by assuring all their chats are end-to-end encrypted. This level of protection ensures WhatsApp is desirable to users. 

So, while data encryption is essential, extra security never hurts. Another way to protect yourself from ID theft is by using credit protection services. Credit protection services help you monitor your financial activities and ensure no fraudulent activities occur. If your credit score is negatively affected, these services will also help resolve this problem. 

3. Add API Throttling And Rate Limiting

Containing an abundance of private data, APIs are highly desirable to hackers. Unfortunately, this also makes APIs vulnerable to DDoS attacks. Having rate limits in place is a great start to preventing successful API attacks. 

Set a threshold, after which all requests will be rejected. For example, 8,000 requests per day per account. 

Besides threshold limitations, also make use of throttling. Throttling algorithms check for the legitimacy of APR requests and perform other safety procedures. And while throttling will slow down a user’s connection, which is annoying, users will still have access to the API and you’ll avoid breaches. 

By having both in place, there’s little chance of the company data being compromised because of data breaches, as illustrated below. 

Besides security, if you’re worried about user experience because of throttling, check out Stackify’s Application Performance Management tool, Retrace. It gives you visibility over the performance of all your applications and provides the insights you’ll need to keep users happy, and their data safe.

4. Don’t Expose Excessive Data

Often, APIs reveal more information than necessary, and hackers can use that data. Ensuring this doesn’t happen should be a priority. To safeguard information, all responses end users receive should only be related to the request’s success or failure. This ensures APIs only provide only the required data. Anything more is playing right into the hackers’ hands. 

Therefore, ensure your DevOps processes scan the kind of information your APIs share. If you notice any data that’s not relevant, remove it as quickly as possible, leaving only what is necessary for the end users.

Protect Your APIs From Hackers 

The bad news is there is no stopping hackers. At least not permanently. Fortunately, cyber security has come a long way, and your users can get the best protection if you put the right measures in place.

An iron-clad API security plan ensures your information never lands in the wrong hands. And following the API security best practices mentioned above is a great start to securing your APIs completely.

About Jon Morgan

Jon is the founder of two successful e-commerce and SaaS businesses. He's passionate about sharing what he has learned from working with business owners through Venture Smarter.