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Security gaps in APIs plague organisations - study

By Catherine Knowles
Thu 4 Aug 2022

Nearly all (94%) of survey respondents of Salt Security’s latest report experienced security problems in production APIs in the past year, with 20% stating their organisations suffered a data breach as a result of security gaps in APIs.

The bi-annual report titled 'Salt Labs State of API Security Report, Q3 2022' found that API attack traffic has doubled in the past 12 months.

Together, the findings highlight that existing solutions and API security tactics focused on shift-left strategies are failing to adequately protect APIs.

The report pulls from a combination of survey responses and empirical data from the Salt Security Cloud Service. It finds that Salt customers experienced a 117% increase in API attack traffic while their overall API traffic grew 168%, highlighting the continued explosion of enterprise API usage.

With malicious API traffic accounting for 2.1% of overall traffic, API attack attempts moved from an average of 12.22 million malicious calls per month a year ago to an average of 26.46 million calls this past June.

Among Salt customers, 44% are suffering an average of 11 to 100 attack attempts every month, and 34% are enduring more than 100 attempts each month, with 8% suffering more than 1000.

Roey Eliyahu, co-founder and CEO, Salt Security, says, "The backbone of our modern economy, digitalisation has made organisations increasingly reliant on APIs to deliver new services and better compete. This focus on digital innovation, however, has also put a target on these organisations, as this research makes clear.

"With API attacks accelerating year over year, it’s no wonder our survey shows security as the top concern about API strategies. The report findings also show the need for a more robust API security strategy - starting with development but especially focused on runtime - to better protect this expanding attack surface and companies’ most valuable assets.”

Developing a vigorous API security strategy is critical, as 61% of survey respondents now manage more than 100 APIs. With key enterprise initiatives so closely tied to API usage, companies have no tolerance for deployment delays or rollbacks. But more than half of survey respondents reported delaying new application rollouts because of API security concerns.

Enterprises look to stop API attacks

When asked which of six attributes of API security platforms are “highly important,” the ability to stop attacks took the top position, with 41% of respondents citing it.

The ability to identify which APIs expose PII or sensitive data took the second spot, with 40% of respondents indicating that feature as highly important. Meeting compliance or regulatory needs took the third spot, with 39% of respondents. Applying shift-left practices came in at the bottom of the list, with only 22% of respondents choosing it as highly important.

"Shift left" practices fail enterprises

Shift left strategies alone continue to leave organisations and their APIs exposed. While 53% of respondents focused on fixing gaps during development, and 59% looked for API issues in testing, a whopping 94% still suffered API security incidents, reflecting a need for increased runtime protection.

In this latest report, just 30% of respondents say they identify and remediate API security gaps in runtime. Yet to fully protect what’s already running within their environments, organisations require runtime protection capabilities.

Application action rollouts delayed

More than half of respondents (54%) indicated they've had to slow the rollout of new applications because of API security concerns.

Poor API design and security practices are often at the root of sensitive PII data leaks, and survey responses reinforce this challenge - nearly a third of respondents admit they've experienced sensitive data exposure or a privacy incident within their API production over the past year, a sharp increase compared to last year's 19%.

Within the Salt customer base, 91% of APIs have exposed some PII or sensitive data, making it imperative for organisations to know how and where data is transmitted so they can best protect those APIs with extra diligence.

Security concerns cause ongoing worry

Survey respondents reported that not investing enough in pre-production security (20%) and not adequately addressing runtime security (18%) were their top concerns about their API strategy.

When asked about the most concerning API security risks, 42% said outdated or "zombie" APIs. Zombie APIs have been the number one concern in the past four surveys from Salt, likely the result of increasingly fast-paced development as organisations seek to maximise the business value associated with APIs.

Account takeover and the accidental exposure of sensitive information were tied as second-highest concerns, at 15% each, followed by worries over “shadow” or unknown APIs, which rose from 5% to 11% in the past six months.

WAFs and API Gateways unsuccessful

As in previous surveys, respondents said they primarily rely on traditional tools to manage APIs and protect against application attacks. Most respondents rely on API gateways (54%) and WAFs (44%) to identify attacks.

The gaps of these traditional tools are made clear by the finding that 82% don't believe their existing tools are very effective at preventing API attacks and 94% endured an API security incident.

Solvable obstacles prevent API security

A significant majority of respondents (61%) admitted they lack any or have only a basic API security strategy in place, a concern given the high reliance on APIs for achieving critical business outcomes.

Despite all survey respondents having APIs running in production, a small percentage (9%) stated they have an advanced API strategy that includes dedicated API testing and protection. The top reasons for a lack of a robust API strategy included budget (24%), expertise (20%), resources (19%), and time (11%).

Additional findings from the State of API Security Report:

  • 91% of APIs running within the Salt customer base are exposing PII or sensitive data
  • API changes are on the rise - 11% of respondents update their APIs daily, 31% do so weekly, and 24% less often than every month
  • Just about half the respondents (55%) say their security team highlights the OWASP API Security Top 10 in their security program, down from 61% six months ago, an unfortunate finding given that 62% of attempted attacks within the Salt customer base leveraged at least one of the methods on that list
  • 86% of respondents lack confidence that their API inventory is complete, and 14% admit they are unaware of which APIs expose PII
  • 64% of respondents say that API security has helped security collaborate and even embed with DevOps teams

Implications for API security The State of API Security Report's Q3 2022 survey results are clear, Salt Security states. Respondents overwhelmingly stated that reliance on APIs is continuing to grow as APIs become ever more imperative to their organisations' success.

However, at the same time, current security tools and processes can't keep pace with new API protocols and attack trends. API traffic and usage trends within the Salt customer base confirm these observations.

The report concludes that organisations must move from traditional security practices and last-generation tools to a modern security strategy that addresses security at every stage of the API lifecycle and provides a broad range of protections that foster collaboration across teams.

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