Is the new OWASP API Top 10 helpful to defenders?

The OWASP Foundation’s Top Ten lists have helped defenders focus their efforts with respect to specific technologies and the OWASP API (Application Programming Interface) Security Top 10 2023 is no exception. First drafted five years ago and updated this year, it aims to address changes in attack methods.


However, the OWASP API Security Project leaders had their work cut out when deciding how to group and prioritize the threats. The list is put together based upon industry input and must reflect compliance concerns, so it was never going to completely satisfy all people. The question is, does it go far enough to be of value to those in the thick of it when it comes to API development and defense?

What has changed and what has stayed the same?

By comparing the old and the new list, we can see that the top two threats – API1 Broken Object Level Authorization (BOLA) and API2 Broken User Authentication – have remained unchanged. API1 denotes the manipulation of the identification of an object that is sent within a request to the API while API2 marks the abuse of authentication mechanisms through attacks such as credential stuffing, including forgotten/rest password functions. They provide the quickest wins for attackers, and it’s easy to see why these continue to the top the list.

API3 replaced Excessive Data Exposure with Broken Object Property Level Authorization. Does this mean we have solved the problem of sensitive data exposure? Alas, no, it continues to be a huge problem. What this change signifies is the next stage an attacker would take when exploiting sensitive data exposure, i.e., break through the property level authorization. So why has the Project decided to make the change? Probably for the sake of clarity, because sensitive data exposure is an issue that spans the rest of the list. But some, including myself, would argue that this isn’t the right way to present the issue, because it declasses what is a very serious issue.

Similarly, API6 was Mass Assignment in 2019 and is now Unrestricted Access to Sensitive Business Flows. Are they different? Not really. Both are talking about taking advantage of objects and their properties within the application flow, with the examples listed on the project page referring to a ride share app where functionality is exploited in the backend. There is, however, something subtle about the naming that makes the 2023 version seem like something that needs to be fixed, rather than being nebulous and confusing, so in that respect it is an improvement.

Bring bots into the mix

API6 also plays to how an API that isn’t functioning properly can swiftly end up with attack automation being utilized against it in the form of bot attacks. This is important because there’s always been an artificial distinction made between API and bot attacks, with the security sector offering different solutions for each when the reality is that automated attacks can and are launched against APIs. So, it no longer makes sense to monitor for API attacks and bot attacks separately: bot mitigation has to become part of API security. This is apparent in our recent report, which revealed that automated attacks dwarfed other TTPs in the analysis of traffic during the last quarter of 2022.

Overall, the new list largely redefines many of the previous tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) in a bid to be more inclusive. API4, for instance, has moved from Lack of Resources and Rate Limiting to become Unrestricted Resource Consumption, reflecting the fact that rate limiting extends beyond the issue of network capacity. Other resources that can be abused if limits are not set include CPU, memory and storage, for example, but just as importantly, service providers can find service resources maxed out by API requests. They may provide emails, texts or phone calls and a repeat API request can see that service provider rack up huge service costs.

However, there are some changes in the order and new concepts in there towards the end. API7 Security Misconfiguration drops a place to API8 as there has been progress made in this area.

API7 is now Server Side Request Forgery (SSRF). APIs are a prime target for SSRF attacks because they routinely channel outbound traffic from an application. Developers often access external resources, such as web hooks, file fetching from URLs or custom SSO and URL previews – states the Project – or cloud or container providers expose management and control channels to compromise via HTTP. And the old API8, Injection attacks? That’s no longer a separately categorized threat again because it’s typically adopted in many of the other attack types.

Significant changes

API9 sees another subtle but important change in the wording: from Improper Assets Management to Improper Inventory Management. This reflects the heightened number of shadow APIs that are out there which once deployed are no longer monitored and effectively fall off the security team’s radar. Unmanaged, unknown and unprotected, these APIs are then sitting ducks for attackers who now actively search for them. In fact, we found that 45 billion search attempts were made for shadow APIs during the second half of 2022, compared to five billion during the first six months. A runtime API inventory that continuously monitors production APIs is therefore vital to ensure all APIs that go live are protected yet it’s one of the key failings in organisations today.

Finally, API10 has changed from Insufficient Logging and Monitoring, now largely covered by API9, to Unsafe Consumption of APIs. This reflects the extension we’ve seen of the API software chain, with APIs now often being integrated with other APIs. The problem that has arisen is that developers tend to inherently trust interactions with these external APIs, particularly from well-known companies, even though they may be flawed and/or be leaking data.

Clearly a great deal of thought has gone into adjusting the OWASP API Top Ten to more accurately address the TTPs that attackers are now using. The result sees both minor and some major changes to the list all of which are justified. Indeed, it’s not the descriptors but the list itself that is problematic. It’s an arbitrary concept that’s designed to attract attention to and heighten the profile of API security but does it do anything to further how we defend against these attacks?

How it holds up under an attack scenario

If we use breach analysis, we can compare a typical breach to the categories in the list to see how the concept stacks up. Many breaches start out with an API that the victim organization was unaware they had ( API9 in the 2023 list). This API is then found to return some kind of data about a user that isn’t the attacker (API1). Now the attacker is going to create attack automation using a bot to try to exploit this as quickly and as completely as possible (API6), completing the attack chain and giving the attacker access to data hidden in the victim organization’s systems.

It’s evident that such an attack would cross at least three of the attack categories so prioritizing them becomes immaterial. Indeed, such trinity attacks are gaining ground, with 100 million detected during the first half of 2022.

What’s more, as well as seeing attackers pivot during an attack and utilize known TTPs, we are also seeing them come up with unique TTPs to attempt to subvert the API. These grew more than fivefold between June and November (from 2,000 to 11,000). Most of those attacks were geared towards achieving account takeover (ATO), scraping to perform reconnaissance or to exfiltrate data, and hunting for business logic flaws within the API to commit fraud.

Keeping up with such diverse attacks requires the security team to focus not just on its defense but methods of detection and mitigation. Whether it is knowing where APIs are, testing them for flaws or stopping bots attacking unknown flows, API security needs to become more comprehensive, tracking and protecting the API throughout its entire lifecycle.

A sound summary of TTPs

The new OWASP API Top 10 may not be perfect, but it does cover the bases and provides a great starting point from which to address the topic. It now recognizes that some attack methods such as sensitive data and exposure and injection attacks span multiple TTPs and so do not require a separate category. It also amplifies the need for bot mitigation as part of API security, and the complex nature of API ecosystems that are seeing them integrated with one another, for instance.

But its structure is not conducive to showing how these attacks are being used in the wild. It still compartmentalizes these attacks when threat actors are becoming much more versatile and combining them.

Realistically, the only way of keeping pace with this rapidly evolving threat landscape is to monitor and manage those APIs. Creating a runtime inventory, conducting API threat surface assessments, carrying out specification anomaly detection and putting in place real-time automated bot detection and mitigation are all now essential to protect the API footprint of the business.

Don't miss