Rethinking Application Security Maturity:
The Critical Role of API Security

14 MIN READ  /
Thodoris Chronis
Head of Delivery and Technology | code4thought
In the digital age, where application architectures are increasingly reliant on APIs, it’s essential that organizations adopt a robust approach to application security that addresses the unique challenges posed by API integration. As we shift towards microservices and cloud-native technologies, APIs are not just facilitators of connectivity; they represent critical attack surfaces that must be protected with an advanced security strategy.

API Attacks: Up by 400% in 6 Months

As a growth-driver alone, APIs are unbeatable. But left unattended, these powerful and lucrative targets are of too much value to attackers to be confidently secured with anything less than a mature API security force. Ask those affected by the 400% API attack growth rate what happens if you don’t.
CIOs and DevOps leaders leveraging APIs as critical components of their digital-first initiatives state that interoperability is their primary deciding factor in whether to consume or produce an API. With workability clearly at the top of the list, it’s easy to see how other priorities – like security – can become a second thought.
API growth is outstripping security, and the writing is on the wall. A landslide 95% of DevOps leaders say their teams have experienced an API-related security incident, and these breaches get so severe that product launches have been delayed. Additionally, 94% of organizations experienced security problems in production APIs in 2022, and 17% attributed data breaches to the insufficient protection of APIs, as reported by Security Boulevard. One Imperva report noted the lack of API security would end up costing between $12 billion and $23 billion in the U.S. and up to $75 billion worldwide.
Houston, we have an API problem – and it’s not their ability to connect.
So why is what we’re doing not enough? As API Security firm Salt Security states, “[API] attacks have changed and they’re easy to miss.” They note that traditional “one and done” attacks like SQL injections and cross-site scripting attacks are out. Now, attackers are more willing to go for the big gains, using “low and slow” techniques to remain undetected in your environment for months, gathering data until it has what it needs to strike it big in a grand API-targeted attack. They focus on finding vulnerabilities in the business logic of your APIs, then strike once they’ve figured them out.

The API Security Maturity Model: A Framework for Enhancing Application Security

Though often used synonymously, application security (AppSec) and API security are very distinct disciplines. API security helps to protect APIs from unauthorized access, misuse, and abuse. It also helps to protect against malicious attacks such as SQL injection, cross-site scripting (XSS), and other types of attacks. However, it is essential to realize that by implementing proper API security measures, organizations can ensure that their applications remain secure and protected from potential threats. Securing APIs is a critical aspect of a proper application security strategy.
That being said, we can do much better today than we’ve done in the past, and here are some tips. See where your organization is in relation to these maturity levels and what is required to get to the next step.
API Awareness
At the foundational level, organizations recognize the utility of APIs but often overlook the security implications. This stage is characterized by a limited understanding of the API attack surface, leading to insufficient protective measures. APIs are protected only by generic security tools, leaving them vulnerable to attacks.
API Development
As API deployment accelerates, the focus shifts towards more structured API management practices. However, security measures often lag, primarily addressing basic threats through traditional firewalls or Web Application Firewalls (WAFs). This stage still lacks API-specific security solutions, making detailed threat detection and prevention challenging.
API-Specific Security
At this stage, organizations begin to prioritize API security as a distinct discipline. This involves adopting API security platforms and integrating schema definitions like Swagger or OpenAPI for standardized documentation and testing. Security teams start to employ Dynamic Application Security Testing (DAST) tools to identify runtime vulnerabilities and address the OWASP API Security Top 10 risks, marking a significant shift from network-centric to application-centric security approaches.
Advanced Security Integration
Advanced maturity sees APIs fully integrated into the security lifecycle, with continuous testing and monitoring throughout development and deployment phases. Security practices are deeply embedded in the API development pipeline, utilizing both Static Application Security Testing (SAST) and DAST tools to ensure comprehensive coverage. At this level, security measures are proactive rather than reactive, aiming to anticipate and mitigate potential threats before they can exploit API vulnerabilities.
API-First and Cloud-Native Security
In the most advanced stage, API security is an integral part of the organizational ethos. This stage takes a cloud-native approach that leverages automated tools to secure both internal and external APIs across all stages of their lifecycle. It also focuses on securing third-party APIs and employs modern authentication protocols like OAuth2 and OpenID Connect to ensure robust access control.

Enhancing Visibility and Control: The Role of Enterprise Architecture Mapping

In today’s complex digital ecosystems, APIs are often sprawling and interconnected across various environments, from on-premises servers to multi-cloud platforms. This dispersed nature makes it challenging for organizations to maintain an accurate inventory of all active APIs, which is essential for enforcing security policies and ensuring comprehensive protection.
To address these challenges, implementing an enterprise architecture mapping strategy is critical. This approach involves creating a detailed architectural landscape map, including all APIs, their interactions, and dependencies. By achieving a holistic view of the API ecosystem, organizations can:
  1. Identify unmanaged APIs.
  2. Standardize API security practices.
  3. Optimize API integrations.
  4. Enhance compliance and governance.
By integrating enterprise architecture mapping into the API security strategy, organizations can not only identify and secure each API but also optimize their overall security posture. This proactive approach helps mitigate risks before they manifest as security incidents, ensuring that APIs remain robust conduits for business operations rather than vulnerabilities.

Elevating Application Security Through API Maturity

As APIs become increasingly integral to digital architectures, their security must be a top priority for organizations. The rapid growth of APIs and the corresponding rise in API attacks highlight the urgent need for a comprehensive, mature API security strategy. By adopting a structured approach to API security, organizations can not only prevent unauthorized access and misuse but also mitigate the risk of significant breaches that could impact their operations and reputation. Implementing robust API security practices, integrating them throughout the application lifecycle, and enhancing visibility with enterprise architecture mapping are crucial steps in safeguarding an organization’s digital infrastructure and ensuring its resilience against the evolving landscape of cyber threats.