API Security vs. Application Security: What’s the difference?

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It is commonly misconstrued that there is no difference between application security (Appsec) and API security. In various ways, API security is very different from application security, and a lack of understanding of these differences can be dangerous and expose your organization to a series of API attacks.

API security should be treated differently from traditional application security in general. This has been highlighted in the Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP) API Security Top 10, which documents API security threats that do not apply to general application security. Therefore, it is not enough to implement security practices and products that protect your applications but not your API traffic, as API security should not be considered merely as an extension of application security but as an independent component of Appsec. 

Application security involves developing, adding, or testing security features within applications to prevent security vulnerabilities against threats like unauthorized access and modification. It is simply security precautions used at the application level to prevent data or code theft within the application. Appsec aims to make applications secure by finding, fixing, and enhancing security. 

On the other hand, Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) allow applications to access data and interact with others, including external software components. APIs are intermediaries that enable applications to communicate with each other, while API security refers to preventing and mitigating attacks on APIs. API security is an integral component of modernizing Appsec programs and should be integrated from the development and testing process to the production stage to detect and prevent API exploitation. To effectively understand the difference between API security and Application security, it is essential to highlight the threats associated with both. 

Threats Associated With Application Security

There are various threats that users and application developers face which should be understood, managed, and mitigated to prevent attacks. Common threats associated with application security are:

Injection Attacks: Applications are vulnerable to injection attacks like SQL injection, Cross-Site Scripting, Email Header injection, et al., which could lead to unauthorized database access and exploration. 

Security Misconfigurations: Applications with unchanged default settings and configurations create vulnerabilities that can be explored by attackers. 

Broken Authentication: This refers to the inadequate implementation of authentication and session management tokens. Attackers can exploit this by stealing a legitimate user’s identity and exploiting privileges of the said user. 

Buffer Overflow: Attacks from buffer overflow result from bad programming. Attackers attempt to input more data than a buffer is programmed to hold, causing the buffer to overflow and inherently crashing the system/application. 

Broken Access Control: Insufficient central access control measures are a threat to applications. Gaps in an application can be exploited by a threat actor who gained access by masquerading as a legitimate user. Organizations should prioritize access control when developing applications. 

Threats Associated With API Security

Attacks on APIs have risen in recent months, with a 681% increase in the past 12 months. Organizations are struggling to protect their APIs and keep them safe from attacks and malicious hacks. Common threats associated with APIs are:

Broken Object Level Authorization (BOLA): Broken authorization controls around objects like data files and database records give attackers unauthorized access to sensitive data and compromise an organization’s security. 

Broken Function Level Authorization: Access to specific functions or resources that require privileged authorization can be compromised if left open. Well-defined policies outlining access levels and roles within an organization should be implemented to prevent attacks. 

Insufficient Logging and Monitoring: API security threats are largely missed due to poor logging and monitoring practices. Logging and monitoring play an essential part in API security, preventing cyber attacks by gaining visibility into abnormal API usage. Therefore, implementing effective logging and monitoring systems is necessary to detect malicious activities in real time.

Excessive Data Exposure: Data is excessively exposed when an API provides more data than is needed. Access to sensitive data through excessive data exposure by bad threat actors can lead to data exploitation to commit crimes like data theft, identity theft, and financial fraud. 

How is API Security Different From Application Security

Security solutions, including API gateways, web application firewalls, API management tools, and Identity and Access Management (IAM), are not designed to prevent attacks on APIs. APIs are challenging to protect, and traditional security solutions are insufficient to handle the API ecosystem’s technicalities. Securing APIs presents unique challenges, amongst which are:

A Dynamic Threat Landscape: Organizations deploy thousands of APIs to enhance productivity; therefore, there is a constantly changing landscape due to the pace of development. Documenting these APIs by keeping an inventory of deployed APIs, logging and monitoring API performance, and deploying regular patches are essential to keep APIs secure. 

Periodic Testing: Implementing shift-left tactics, a process involving pre-production testing to discover gaps in APIs, is ineffective as this process does not reveal vulnerabilities in your organization’s API business logic. Developers are not known to write fully secure codes; hence, organizations should conduct periodic vulnerability tests to identify and prevent API vulnerabilities and their potential organizational risks. 

Unique Attacks: Unlike Appsec, where traditional attacks like SQL injections or cross-site scripting attacks happen across various applications, attacks on APIs are similar yet unique. Every API is unique, so every attack on an API has to be unique. 

Conclusion

API security and application security are ongoing concerns for organizations. APIs and applications must be monitored closely to detect and prevent attacks. Attacks against APIs are masked as ordinary traffic; therefore, application security tools cannot defend against them. It is pertinent that organizations implement both API security practices and application security practices to achieve optimum security.

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