Credential stuffing attacks are taking up a lot of the oxygen in cybersecurity rooms these days. A steady blitz of large-scale cybersecurity breaches in recent years have flooded the dark web with passwords and other credentials that are used in subsequent attacks such as those on Reddit and State Farm, as well as widespread efforts to exploit the remote work and online get-togethers resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
But while enterprises are rightly worried about weathering a hurricane of credential-stuffing attacks, they also need to be concerned about more subtle, but equally dangerous, threats to APIs that can slip in under the radar.
Attacks that exploit APIs, beyond credential stuffing, can start small with targeted probing of unique API logic, and lead to exploits such as the theft of personal information, wholesale data exfiltration or full account takeovers.
Unlike automated flood-the-zone, volume-based credential attacks, other API attacks are conducted almost one-to-one and carried out in elusive ways, targeting the distinct vulnerabilities of each API, making them even harder to detect than attacks happening on a large scale. Yet, they’re capable of causing as much, if not more, damage. And they’re becoming more and more prevalent with APIs being the foundation of modern applications.
Beyond credential stuffing
Credential stuffing attacks are a key concern for good reason. High profile breaches—such as those of Equifax and LinkedIn, to name two of many—have resulted in billions of compromised credentials floating around on the dark web, feeding an underground industry of malicious activity. For several years now, about 80% of breaches that have resulted from hacking have involved stolen and/or weak passwords, according to Verizon’s annual Data Breach Investigations Report.
Additionally, research by Akamai determined that three-quarters of credential abuse attacks against the financial services industry in 2019 were aimed at APIs. Many of those attacks are conducted on a large scale to overwhelm organizations with millions of automated login attempts.
The majority of threats to APIs move beyond credential stuffing, which is only one of many threats to APIs as defined in the 2019 OWASP API Security Top 10. In many instances they are not automated, are much more subtle and come from authenticated users.
APIs, which are essential to an increasing number of applications, are specialized entities performing particular functions for specific organizations. Someone exploiting a vulnerability in an API used by a bank, retailer or other institution could, with a couple of subtle calls, dump the database, drain an account, cause an outage or do all kinds of other damage to impact revenue and brand reputation.
An attacker doesn’t even have to necessarily sneak in. For instance, they could sign on to Disney+ as a legitimate user and then poke around the API looking for opportunities to exploit. In one example of a front-door approach, a researcher came across an API vulnerability on the Steam developer site that would allow the theft of game license keys. (Luckily for the company, he reported it—and was rewarded with $20,000.)
Most API attacks are very difficult to detect and defend against since they’re carried out in such a clandestine manner. Because APIs are mostly unique, their vulnerabilities don’t conform to any pattern or signature that would allow common security controls to be enforced at scale. And the damage can be considerable, even coming from a single source. For example, an attacker exploiting a weakness in an API could launch a successful DoS attack with a single request.
Rather than the more common DDoS attack, which floods a target with requests from many sources via a botnet, an API DoS can happen when the attacker manipulates the logic of the API, causing the application to overwork itself. If an API is designed to return, say, 10 items per request, an attacker could change that value to 10 million, using up all of an application’s resources and crashing it—with a single request.
Credential stuffing attacks present security challenges of their own. With easy access to evasion tools—and with their own sophistication improving dramatically – it’s not difficult for attackers to disguise their activity behind a mesh of thousands of IP addresses and devices. But credential stuffing nevertheless is an established problem with established solutions.
How enterprises can improve
Enterprises can scale infrastructure to mitigate credential stuffing attacks or buy a solution capable of identifying and stopping the attacks. The trick is to evaluate large volumes of activity and block malicious login attempts without impacting legitimate users, and to do it quickly, identifying successful malicious logins and alerting users in time to protect them from fraud.
Enterprises can improve API security first and foremost by identifying all of their APIs including data exposure, usage, and even those they didn’t know existed. When APIs fly under security operators’ radar, otherwise secure infrastructure has a hole in the fence. Once full visibility is attained, enterprises can more tightly control API access and use, and thus, enable better security.