Application Security vs. API Security: What is the difference?
As digital transformation takes hold and businesses become increasingly reliant on digital services, it has become more important than ever to secure applications and APIs (Application Programming Interfaces). With that said, application security and API security are two critical components of a comprehensive security strategy. By utilizing these practices, organizations can protect themselves from malicious attacks and security threats, and most importantly, ensure their data remains secure.
Interestingly enough, despite the clear advantages these disciplines provide, businesses are struggling to understand which security approach is best for their needs. So in this article, we’ll discuss the differences between application and API security, best practices that you should consider, and ultimately make the case for why you need both.
Application security, better known as AppSec, is a critical aspect of any organization’s cybersecurity strategy. Application security helps protect data and systems from unauthorized access, modification, or data destruction by utilizing techniques around authentication and authorization, encryption, access control, secure coding practices, and more.
The benefits of application security are numerous. It can help protect sensitive data from being stolen or misused, reduce the risk of data breaches, and ensure that applications are compliant with industry regulations. Additionally, application security can help organizations reduce the costs associated with responding to a security incident by providing proactive measures that reduce the risk of a successful attack. Finally, it can also improve customer trust by providing a secure environment for customers to interact with your business.
According to the ISACA, the five key components of an application security program are:
In the next section, we’ll take a look at how API security fits into this framework, as well as where it still needs to be addressed.
Though often used synonymously, 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. By implementing proper API security measures, organizations can ensure that their applications remain secure and protected from potential threats.
As you can see, securing APIs is a critical aspect of a proper application security strategy. However, to be clear, API Security is different enough from ‘traditional’ Application Security that it requires specific consideration. AppSec focuses on protecting the entire application while API security focuses on protecting the APIs that are used to connect modern applications and exchange data.
The biggest difference between an API and an Application is how each impacts the user. APIs are intended to be used by software applications, while software applications themselves are intended to be used by humans. This implies different security controls are required. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s dig into how API security is embedded within four of the five key components of AppSec and where it still needs help:
The core idea here “is to consider security at the point of architecture and design, before any source code is written or compiled.” The ISACA goes on to say that “controls can include, but are not limited to, the use of web application firewalls (WAFs) and application program interface (API) security gateways, encryption capabilities, authentication and secrets management, logging requirements, and other security controls.”
With that in mind, in the 2022 Hype Cycle for Application Security, Gartner points out that “traditional network and web protection tools do not protect against all the security threats facing APIs, including many of those described in the OWASP API Security Top 10.” Which illustrates the need for developers and security professionals to consider unique nuances of API protection in their cybersecurity strategy.
Discover all of the elements to consider when securing APIs by downloading in the in-depth API Security Buyers Guide.
As you can imagine, application security testing (AST) and API security testing are different disciplines. Ultimately the goal of securing the software development lifecycle (SDLC) is the same, but the approaches are fundamentally different. The ISACA recommends pursuing traditional security testing methods like static application security testing (SAST) and dynamic application security testing (DAST). They also recommend supplementing AppSec testing with penetration (pen) testing. The problem here is that APIs require additional testing that these techniques cannot address.
According to Gartner, “traditional AST tools — SAST, DAST and interactive AST (IAST) — were not originally designed to test for vulnerabilities associated with typical attacks against
APIs. They go on to say that, “to identify the optimal approach to API testing, they are looking to a mix of traditional tools (such as static AST [SAST] and dynamic AST [DAST]) and emerging solutions focused specifically on the requirements of APIs.” A good example to explain their rationale would be the discovery of each individual endpoint and it’s associated CRUD operations depending on the authentication/authorization. This is something SAST tools simply cannot do.
You can learn more about the key differences Gartner is calling out by downloading the new ebook, API Security Testing For Dummies.
According to the ISACA, “all developers should be minimally trained on the Open Worldwide Application Security Project Top 10 list (OWASP Top 10)”. However, this list of web application risks is just a piece of the puzzle. Due to the unique vulnerabilities APIs present, coupled with the rise in API related security breaches, OWASP established the OWASP API Security Top 10. This list addresses the most pressing API threats facing organizations. With that said, it’s important for developers to abide by both lists in order to secure their applications and APIs.
You can learn how to defend against these critical vulnerabilities in the ebook, Mitigating OWASP Top 10 API Security Threats.
There is no denying that both API gateways and web application firewalls (WAFs) are important components of the API delivery stack. To be honest, neither are designed to provide the security controls and observability required to adequately protect APIs. And organizations are now realizing the false sense of security they had thinking their WAF or API gateway were enough to keep their APIs secure.
The reality is, you need a purpose-built API security platform to find your APIs, evaluate their security posture and monitor for any unusual network traffic or patterns of use. Otherwise, you’re just fooling yourself that your APIs are safe from cyber-attacks. If you’re interested in seeing how these legacy tools measure up to a purpose-built platform, check out this comparison page.
Noname Security is the only company taking a complete, proactive approach to API Security. Noname works with 20% of the Fortune 500 and covers the entire API security scope — Discovery, Posture Management, Runtime Protection, and API Security Testing.
With Noname Security, you can monitor API traffic in real-time to uncover insights into data leakage, data tampering, data policy violations, suspicious behavior, and API security attacks. We also provide a suite of over 150 custom-built API security tests based on years of enterprise-grade API security experience, not relying on generalized approaches like fuzzing. You can run the suite of tests on-demand or as part of a CI/CD pipeline.
If you’re interested in learning more about Noname Security and how we can help secure your API estate, visit nonamesecurity.com.
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