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How to Harden Your APIs by Andy Thurai

The market for APIs has experienced explosive growth in recent years, yet one of the major issues that providers still face is the protection and hardening of the APIs that they expose to users. In particular, when you are exposing APIs from a cloud based platform, this becomes very difficult to achieve given the various cloud provider constraints. In order to achieve this you would need a solution that can provide the hardening capabilities out of the box, but that still permits for customization of the granular settings to meet the solution need. Intel has such a solution and it has been well thought out. If this is something you desire this article might help you foresee the many uses and versatility.

Identify sensitive data and sensitivity of your API

The first step in protecting sensitive data is identifying it as such. This could be anything like PII, PHI and PCI data. Perform a complete analysis of your inbound and outbound data to your API, including all parameters, to figure this out.

Once identified, make sure only authorized people can access the data.

This will require solid identity, authentication, and authorization systems to be in place. These all can be provided by the same system. Your API should be able to identify multiple types of identities. In order to achieve an effective identity strategy, your system will need to accept identities of the older formats such as X.509, SAML, WS-Security as well as the newer breed of OAuth, Open ID, etc. In addition your identity systems must  mediate the identities, as an Identity Broker, so it can securely and efficiently relate these credentials to your API to consume.

You will need to have identity-based governance policies in place. These policies need to be enforced globally not just locally. Effectively this means you need to have predictable results that are reproducible regardless of where you deploy your policies. Once the user is identified and authenticated, then you can use that result to authorize the user based on not only that credential, but also based on the location where the invocation came from, time of the day, day of the week, etc. Furthermore, for highly sensitive systems the data or user can be classified as well. Top secret data can be accessed only by top classified credentials, etc. In order to build very effective policies and govern them at run time, you need to integrate with a mature policy decision engine. It can be either standard based, such as XACML, or integrated with an existing legacy system provider

Protect Data

Protect your data as if your business depends on it, as it often does, or should. Make sure that the sensitive data, whether in transit or at rest (storage), is not in an unprotected original format. While there are multiple ways the data can be protected, the most common ones are encryption or tokenization. In the case of encryption, the data will be encrypted, so only authorized systems can decrypt the data back to its original form. This will allow the data to circulate encrypted and decrypt as necessary along the way by secured steps. While this is a good solution for many companies you need be careful about the encryption standard you choose, your key management and key rotation policies. The other standard “tokenization” is based on the fact you can’t steal what is not there. You can basically tokenize anything from PCI, PII or PHI information. The original data is stored in a secure vault and a token (or pointer, representing the data) will be sent in transit down stream. The advantage is that if any unauthorized party gets hold of the token, they wouldn’t know where to go to get the original data, let alone have access to the original data. Even if they do know where the token data is located, they are not white listed, so the original data is not available to them. The greatest advantage with tokenization systems is that it reduces the exposure scope throughout your enterprise, as you have eliminated vulnerabilities throughout the system by eliminating the sensitive and critical data from the stream thereby centralizing your focus and security upon the stationary token vault rather than active, dynamic and pliable data streams.. While you’re at it, you might want to consider a mechanism, such as DLP, which is highly effective in monitoring for sensitive data leakage. This process can automatically tokenize or encrypt the sensitive data that is going out. You might also want to consider policy based information traffic control. While certain groups of people may be allowed to communicate certain information (such as company financials by an auditor,etc) the groups may not be allowed to send that information. You can also enforce that by a location based invocation (ie. intranet users vs. mobile users who are allowed to get certain information).


While APIs exposed in the cloud can let you get away with scalability from a expansion or a burst during peak hours, it is still a good architectural design principle to make sure that you limit or rate access to your API. This is especially valuable  if you are offering an open API and exposure to anyone, which is an important and valuable factor. There are 2 sides to this; a business side and a technical side. The technical side will allow your APIs to be consumed in a controlled way and the business side will let you negotiate better SLA contracts based on usage model you have handy. You also need to have a flexible throttling mechanism that can help you implement this more efficiently such as just notify, throttle the excessive traffic, shape the traffic by holding the messages until the next sampling period starts, etc. In addition, there should be a mechanism to monitor and manage traffic both for long term and for short term which can be based on 2 different policies.

Protect your API

The attacks or misuse of  your publicly exposed API can be intentional or accidental. Either way you can’t afford for anyone to bring your API down. You need to have application aware firewalls that can look into the application level messages and prevent attacks. Generally the application attacks tend to fall under Injection attacks (SQL Injection, Xpath injection, etc), Script attacks, or attack on the Infrastructure itself.

Message Security

You also need to provide both transport level and message level security features. While transport security features such as SSL, TSL provide some data privacy you need to have an option to encrypt/ sign message traffic, so it will reach the end systems safely and securely and can authenticate the end user who sent the message.

Imagine if you can provide all of the above in one package. Just take it out of the packaging, power it up, and with a few configuration steps provide most of what we have discussed above?  More importantly in a matter of hours you’ve hardened your API to your enterprise level (or in some cases better than that). Intel has such a solution to offer.

Check out our Intel API gateway solution which offers all of those hardening features, in one package and a whole lot more. Feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions or need additional info.




Andy Thurai — Chief Architect & CTO, Application Security and Identity Products, Intel

Andy Thurai is Chief Architect and CTO of Application Security and Identity Products with Intel, where he is responsible for architecting SOA, Cloud, Governance, Security, and Identity solutions for their major corporate customers. In his role, he is responsible for helping Intel/McAfee field sales, technical teams and customer executives. Prior to this role, he has held technology architecture leadership and executive positions with L-1 Identity Solutions, IBM (Datapower), BMC, CSC, and Nortel. His interests and expertise include Cloud, SOA, identity management, security, governance, and SaaS. He holds a degree in Electrical and Electronics engineering and has over 20+ years of IT experience.

He blogs regularly at www.thurai.net/securityblog on Security, SOA, Identity, Governance and Cloud topics. You can find him on LinkedIn

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