Security Best Practices for Open-Source APIs

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Security Best Practices for Open-Source APIs

With the power and convenience of open-source APIs comes a substantial security risk.

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Open-source APIs have been key to developing much of today’s software. APIs allow programmers to take advantage of externally available resources and services instead of having them to build these from scratch. But together, with the power and convenience of open-source APIs, comes a substantial security risk.

Many organizations build enterprise stacks on top of community-based modules. However, open-source designs come with their own set of flaws and security vulnerabilities. Open-source projects offer no guarantee that they were tested for security or patched in a timely manner when security vulnerabilities were discovered.

This article will focus on security best practices that can help you leverage open-source APIs without risking a catastrophic security breach.

Implementing Open-Source APIs

An Application Programming Interface (API) is a software intermediary that programmers use to develop software. It enables communication between computing resources, which provide building blocks that developers can combine to build an application. The resources at each end of the communication channel are known as endpoints.

APIs come with specifications that determine how they transfer information between systems, and they provide the language for the interactions. For example, an API might use HTTP requests to retrieve information from a web application or server. Developers can build APIs and expose them for use by the public (the open-source community).

The Risks Associated With Open-Source APIs

Exposing the code or data associated with an API enables the public to access it easily, but it also increases the security risk. Open-source APIs are a major source of data breaches, as they attract hackers who exploit the exposed backend system. The documentation provided by APIs offers a clear insight into the underlying database structure. A malicious actor can simply integrate a virus or malware into the API code.

Another risk arises from the ease of data sharing between applications. While this can be of benefit to applications that offer personalized services, there is also the potential for exposing personal information to a third party, while the amount of data gathered makes it difficult to track.

The main issue with open-source APIs is the large attack surface, which gives attackers plenty of room to exploit, and can result in:

  • Parameter tampering attacks—injecting data to exploit weaknesses in an application or database. This could be in the form of HTTP parameter pollution or SQL injection.
  • Identity attacks—using an exposed API key to gain access to the system and write malicious code. The hacker impersonates a legitimate user, so the authorization measures fail to identify the threat.
  • Man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks—intercepting the communication between an API and a user or application. This can be a form of espionage, or the attacker might impersonate the endpoints. An API may be vulnerable to MITM attacks if it doesn’t properly use cryptographic protocols like TLS.

Six Best Practices for Securing Open-Source APIs

To use your APIs safely, whilst maintaining industry standards, you should follow these practices:

1. Use the Right Protocol

To mitigate MITM attacks, APIs should always use up-to-date Transport Layer Security (TLS) for data exchanges. Don’t rely on older protocols like Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) or outdated versions of TLS. Configure your servers to support the latest version and disable older versions. TLS cryptographic protocols authenticate and encrypt data being transferred between endpoints.

2. Implement Strong Authentication and Authorization Measures

Authentication of a user’s identity should precede authorization of access privileges. To mitigate against identity attacks, implement multi-factor authentication for added security, requiring the use of authentication keys in addition to externally obtained access tokens like OAuth2. You can also use a secret management solution to help keep your keys secret.

An authorization step should follow the authentication process to determine which resources the identified user can access. You can use authorization measures like Role-Based Access Control (RBAC) or Context-Based Access Control (CBAC). These measures can help manage insider threats, ensuring that your most sensitive resources are protected.

OAuth2 Vs. Credentials

OAuth is an open standard for authorization that anyone can implement, and is a substitute for end-user credentials. It uses HTTPS access tokens to provide APIs and applications with secure access.

OAuth tokens allow end-users to access the network without receiving sensitive information. An end-user receives a cryptographically signed access token from an identity provider, which the application authenticates. This differs from basic authentication, which involves directly submitting credentials, such as a username and password, to log in to an account.

OAuth2 is intended for REST APIs, so you should use a REST framework for increased security. However, you need to be vigilant and validate all inputs with whitelists, due to the large surface area. For Note that OAuth 2.0 is not backward compatible with OAuth1.0.

3. Choose API Keys

You should prioritize API keys over credentials. API keys are codes that identify applications to an API. If you only need to access the data of a single user, use API keys. Otherwise, you can use OAuth access tokens to provide easy authorization without sharing private data.

4. Search for Vulnerabilities

Conduct code analysis to assess vulnerabilities and loopholes that attackers can exploit. Write tests for your components and dependencies so you can uncover vulnerabilities and apply patches.

If you use unpatched components with known vulnerabilities, it will be easier for a hacker to infiltrate your application. This is all the more important when using open source APIs, which can provide clear attack paths if unchecked.

5. Use Security Tools to Detect Threats

There are numerous standard security tools that you can use to secure your application against vulnerabilities. Some of these offer explicit threat detection, which can help you mitigate against data breaches and other malicious activity.

Select intuitive tools that you can easily use to automate the process of identifying real and potential threats, and to filter the noise by alerting you only to relevant security events. Employ tools to monitor API endpoints and proactively address issues before they reach the end-user.

Such tools can be found as part of an API security platform, which should help apply authentication policies and secure data to meet industry standards and comply with regulations.

Key Takeaways

While many modern applications rely on open source APIs to enable communication and integration with other applications and endpoints, the visibility and … raises concerns regarding security. In this article, we discussed how you can overcome these challenges by following a set of best practices, including the use of correct protocols, authentication and authorization measures, the use of API keys, detecting vulnerabilities, testing IT resources, and using threat detection tools.

You should now have a better understanding of:

  1. The risks involved in implementing open source APIs
  2. How to secure your application against vulnerabilities
  3. How to securely integrate open source APIs with an application
  4. The difference between authentication measures like OAuth2 tokens, API keys, and credentials
api, application development, best practices, open source, security

Published at DZone with permission of Eddie Segal . See the original article here.

Opinions expressed by DZone contributors are their own.

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