Securing the API Economy

If you are a business owner (CEO, CIO, or head of a business line) you continuously need to look for ways to innovate, out-think and out-maneuver your competition. In the sharing and collaborative economy we live in, you have an unprecedented opportunity to team up with others to make what you’re good at even better, even more compelling, or part of a larger value proposition. Never before in our history has it been simpler to do so.

The argument is this: there are capabilities that YOU offer and deliver better than anyone else. As a result, you want to make full use of previously isolated data sources and make your capabilities available to others. To do so, you need to plug yourself more into the fabric of the “API economy.”

The term API (for Application Programming Interface – a program calling another program through its API) has been around for a long time; however, over the past few years there’s been an increased interest in APIs, more specifically “Business APIs” or “Web APIs.” “Business APIs” are pretty simple to understand: they are interfaces focused on business assets – for example, a product, a client, an order.  

The “API Economy” relates to the use of “Business APIs” to positively impact a business or a government agency.  API initiatives focus mainly on business drivers related to:

  • innovation
  • faster time-to-market
  • improved sharing of assets
  • the creation of new revenue streams by connecting the physical world with the online world (omnichannel strategy), and by addressing new clients/industries/geographies/use cases
  • improved client experiences

Increased employee engagement is also a focus area for many organizations.

Business APIs are making it easier to integrate and connect people, places, systems, services, data, products, things and algorithms. All industries, all verticals, and corporations of all sizes can extract value out of their data and connect with others – not only tech corporations. APIs now allow any business to embed itself into other folks’ business in an unprecedented way.

Random examples of the API Economy at play include:

  • Google providing Google Maps, which a retailer or ride-sharing company can plug into its applications without having to build its own mapping system
  • PayPal or Stripe payment systems integrated with B2C apps
  • Using your Facebook account when you sign in various apps
  • Brick-and-mortar retailers developing ecommerce channels and leveraging backend APIs to handle things like payments, shipping, etc.
  • IoT technology-enabled pest control systems with automatic notifications of caught rodents in Wi-Fi connected snap traps.

The API Economy’s value is in the trillions of US$, per various industry estimates: https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/digital-mckinsey/our-insights/what-it-really-takes-to-capture-the-value-of-apis

In fact, an interesting industry survey suggests that more than a third (35%) of enterprises generate 25% or more of their topline sales from APIs:  https://www.mulesoft.com/press-center/technology-trends-2018-connectivity-benchmark. An astonishing number!

But here is the downside: as we transition into an increasingly digital-first environment powered by the API Economy, fraud actors follow the data, simply because data (after human capital) is one of the most valuable assets a business has. And APIs are the key to that data.

If your API is insecure, if your workloads or your users’ online browsing or identities get compromised,  you open up a threat vector into your business AND your ecosystem of partners.

Bottom line: When business leaders and developers connect disparate data together and core transactional systems are made available publicly, this increases the attack surface for malicious actors who can now infiltrate entire ecosystems through their supply chains.

How to mitigate your risks in the API Economy?

As a progressive business leader who is winning in the market by leveraging partners’ ecosystems, the last thing you want is for fraud actors to steal your confidential or regulated data or your financial assets.

As always in IT security, you must adopt a three-pronged strategy to minimize risks and boost your cyber security posture:

  1. People – continuous user education and awareness so that your employees truly become a “human firewall” and can spot a phishing email a mile away
  2. Processes – there are good practices aplenty around regular data backup, patching and incident response (beyond the scope of this blog post)

The best technologies will not secure your business from malicious actors if you deploy and configure them wrongly. The recent SingHealth breach in Singapore proves that no matter how advanced your security tools, if your people or processes “break,” you’re in for trouble and for receiving a lot of unwanted attention in ways that will impact your reputation or revenue or both. https://www.zdnet.com/google-amp/article/employees-sacked-ceo-fined-in-singhealth-security-breach/

  • Technology.

If you intend to be an active part of the API Economy and provide your APIs to others, you will be the target of security breaches if you don’t properly think through versioning and deployment. Start by securing your APIs with an application services governance framework – which caters to the end-to-end governance for all types of network services. A good starting point for your research is the 2018 Magic Quadrant for Full Lifecycle API Management by global research and advisory firm Gartner.

Additionally and importantly, if not done already, you must secure your workloads (whether your applications or services reside on-premises in your traditional IT infrastructure, or off-premises in a public or private Cloud, or in a hybrid IT model), and your employees’ identities. Technologies from WatchGuard around network security and multi-factor authentication will certainly help you achieve this important aspect of securing the API Economy.

Sylvain Lejeune, RVP APJ WatchGuard Technologies

linkedin.com/in/sylvainlejeune

How to defeat Malicious Everything-as-a-Service

In the sharing & collaborative economy we live in, we are witnessing two major trends at play.

First, an increasing number of people are getting online. Recent statistics suggest that 4 billion people around the world are now using the internet (this is half of the world’s population): https://wearesocial.com/blog/2018/01/global-digital-report-2018

Second, the consumerization of IT. Business leaders and lines of business are increasingly consuming IT services from their own IT department or directly from public cloud services providers (a trend called “Shadow IT”) on a pay-as-you-consume/PAYG (Pay-as-you-Go) basis. This IT-as-a-service framework has a few fundamental attributes:

  • Standardization
  • Automation
  • The availability of a catalog of services (the “service menu”)
  • Orchestration
  • A business and charging model based on consumption/PAYG
  • Self-service capability

We are now living in a demand-driven model vs the old supply-driven model which was focused on the available legacy technology and its constraints.

The winners in today’s super competitive markets are those that can out-think and out-maneuver their competition. They do so by leveraging a self-service-based operating model based on a high degree of standardization and automation, increasingly with a consumption-based business model (PAYG).

As a result, tech is increasingly present in every single revenue stream.

And bad actors have followed suit. They are leveraging the aforementioned trends to pocket large financial benefits. They are making malicious code and attacks available to the masses as “kits” which can be consumed as-a-service off of service menus built on highly automated and scalable architectures. Add all the stolen data to the mix and you have a very powerful (and daunting) value proposition.

It is very easy, cost-effective and fast now for malicious actors to modify hashes and create new malware variations that evade signatures. Hence the massive amounts of malicious code out there. More on this later.

Examples of “Malicious Everything as-a-Service” abound

Phishing attacks. There are now phishing kits available for sale. They comprise phishing website resources and tools that need only be installed on a server. Once installed, all the fraud actor needs to do is send out emails to potential victims. Email addresses of potential victims are available on the deep web – just like phishing kits.

Ransomware-as-a-Service, or RaaS, are ransomware distribution kits sold on the dark web for a few hundred dollars that allow malicious users with little technical skill to attack relatively easily. Some of these kits allow fraud actors to create their very own customized version of a given ransomware, e.g., Satan, with a “profit-sharing” business model (e.g,, the RaaS developer takes a 30% cut of any payments made by victims, the attacker pockets 70%).

DDoS attack tools are also easily available. A simple web search reveals a significant number of booter and stresser services openly advertised which give unskilled individuals the ability to launch significant DDoS attacks. 2016 marked a turning point with the Mirai malware, which triggered DDoS attacks originating from botnets of compromised Internet of Things (IoT) devices. A series of devastating attacks from the Mirai botnet struck a number of high-profile targets. Variations of the Mirai malware are still active today. More details at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirai_(malware)

One of the most active services for launching distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, WebStresser.org, was taken down in April 2018. The service had more than 136,000 registered users, and it is estimated it contributed to millions of attacks over a three-year period. All of this for a mere 15 euros/month for users to carry out devastating attacks.

In all three aforementioned examples, phishing kits, Raas and DDoS attack tools, the business model, automation, standardization, service menu and the self-service capabilities are five attributes which closely align with IT-as-a-Service and the collaborative economy we mentioned earlier.

An avalanche of malware, compromised URLs, DDOS attacks

The phenomenon of “Malicious Everything as-a-Service” and the rapid growth in the volume of available highly standardized kits have led to a deluge of malware, cryptomining software, compromised URLs, DDoS attacks (in the wake of Mirai), etc.

As briefly mentioned earlier, it is easy and fast to create new malware or mutate** existing ones to evade detection. Today’s malware threats are far more advanced and prolific than ever before. Modern malware creation is automated. As a result it requires very little effort for attackers to mutate a piece of malware. [**Mutating malware is the process of changing existing malicious software without altering its functionality. This is often performed by changing a piece of malware’s hash. Mutation allows malware to evade signature-based anti-malware solutions such as your traditional antivirus.]

The case for man and machine working together

The rapidly increasing volume of advanced, evasive cyber threats is triggering the urgent need for traditional human involvement in addressing IT threats (through the provision of signatures, white-listing, black-listing, heuristics, etc.) to be augmented by the immense capabilities of artificial intelligence. In particular, it is the ability of machine learning and deep learning models to deal with vast data sets – an ability that humans simply do not possess.

Machines and algorithms bring automation, quicker response times, reduced error rates and pre-execution capabilities to the table. It is all about processing and analyzing large amounts of relevant data, and scale.

Human analysts bring human insights at two critical levels: once the AI models have sorted through data, human analysis can then take over and look into suspicious patterns of activity to confirm whether or not these are actual attacks or false positives.

That human analysis then feeds back to the machine learning models (e.g., by adding another layer of security or by continuously sorting and adjusting a mix of supervised and unsupervised machine-learning models, or a combination) to improve pre-execution outcomes and future predictions.

This is the power of man and machine working together to address the increasingly automated, standardized production of “Malicious Everything” delivered as-a-service to wannabe hackers who are flooding businesses, government agencies and consumers with compromised websites, DDoS attacks, cryptomining software and malware of all sorts.

Sylvain Lejeune, WatchGuard RVP Asia Pacific & Japan