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What is an API attack and how does it work

If you want to visualize how data flows across your connected applications, you can think back to that childhood game of Chutes and Ladders (also called Snakes and Ladders). As a kid, the board felt like a confusing grid that had the weirdest, seemingly arbitrary connections between blocks. In your modern digital environment, your Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) fulfill the same role that the ladders and chutes/snakes fulfilled, connecting disparate blocks across a larger whole.


As attackers increasingly target these data connections, understanding what an API attack is and how it works can help you mitigate risks.

What is an Application Programming Interface (API)?

Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) are the set of rules and protocols that developers use so applications can exchange data and perform tasks. By defining the methods and formats for exchanging data, APIs enable disparate software applications, databases, and hardware to communicate by standardizing data request and retrieval.


The four basic types of APIs are:


Further, online applications typically use one of the following web service APIs:


What is an API attack?

Since APIs enable communication between applications, they often expose access to sensitive data and functionalities. APIs handle requests and responses between clients, the front-end application that people use, and servers, the backend database that contains information.


Some examples of sensitive data that APIs can expose include:

When the API exposes this data, threat actors can manipulate how the API works. Typical API attack types include:


How an API Attack Works

Although API attacks can take different forms, they generally follow the same process:


Challenges of API Security

As organizations integrate more applications, they add more APIs, making API security both more important and more challenging.

Authentication and authorization weaknesses

Since APIs are technologies not people, requesting credentials or using multi-factor authentication (MFA) isn’t possible. Instead, they typically use access tokens inserted into the API call to verify these non-human “users.” However, the token can be compromised for various reasons, including:

Improper input validation

Web applications require users to provide data, like form data, query strings, and POST requests. Improper input validation mans that the API never reviews the inputs to ensure:

Inadequate Rate Limiting

Rate limiting sets the maximum number of API requests allowed in a specific amount of time. However, as with everything else in technology, rate limiting doesn’t have a single answer. A global rate limit can be valuable, but it can impact performance, especially on shared wireless connections. Additionally, several different rate limiting approaches exist:

Third-party library vulnerabilities

Developers use third-party API libraries the same way and for the same reason that they use third-party code libraries and frameworks. Using these libraries saves time and often mitigates problems associated with misconfigurations. However, once attackers know that an API has a vulnerability, they look to exploit it. Since not all libraries regularly update their APIs, this creates another software supply chain risk.

Lack of secure data handling

Since APIs transmit data between applications and databases, sensitive data often travels through them. Transport Layer Security (TLS) protocols encrypt communications between the client and server to help protect data. However, implementing encryption isn’t always as easy as it sounds. Developers also need to consider:


Insufficient monitoring and detection

Monitoring APIs means understanding how the data flows between applications. APIs not only increase the attack surface, but they require unique security technologies, increasing the number of locations that security teams need to monitor. Many organizations incorporate web application firewalls (WAFs) specifically to protect APIs from traditional threats, but these still don’t mitigate risks arising from business logic flaws. Simultaneously, security incident event management (SIEM) tools only collect and aggregate data from security technologies. Without a dedicated API security tool, they fail to identify abnormal activity, ultimately increasing security teams’ alert fatigue.


Graylog API Security: Continuous monitoring with high-fidelity alerts

With Graylog API Security, you gain visibility into your API landscape and how your environment uses them. With APIs organized by domain, you can align your monitoring with the open API specification, including identifying prohibited and deprecated APIs. Graylog API Security automatically discovers the most common types of attacks and failures so that you gain at-a-glance visibility into the most severe issues without requiring you to have deep technical knowledge about APIs. By automatically categorizing API calls into meaningful buckets, like API calls that are successful, leaking, or malformed, you can bring all this data into focus.


To see how Graylog API Security can help you reduce the attack surface and protect your organization, contact us today.

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