11436 SSO

The Banks Have Been Hacked. What Now?

Oct 20, 2016

APIDays in London last week encompassed two full days of banking and APIs. The event was full of excellent talks and useful content, but I keep thinking back to a talk by Stevie Graham about his company Teller.io.

Stevie explained how he’s hacked all the major banks’ mobile apps, reverse-engineering them to get at the underlying APIs that power them, and then exposing those APIs to developers.  In a highly charged, “thumb your nose at the man” talk, Stevie explained how he was also deploying "anti-anti-hacking techniques" to thwart banks’ attempts to stop him from turning their mobile apps into open APIs.  

Reflecting on the talk, a few things struck me.

Realize it or not, banks actually do have external APIs

Every mobile app is powered by APIs. Those APIs are not built out to be accessed by third parties, but they exist!!  In fact, everything you can do in a mobile app—check balances, transfer money, make a payment—all those functions are APIs. The “balance check”  button initiates an API call, which may initiate several other API calls, to fetch your bank balance. The fact that these APIs exist and power external experiences makes them essentially external, and thus vulnerable.

Banks need to invest in API security

Stevie has vividly illustrated this (no kidding, you say). Regardless of whether you plan to open APIs or not, having first-class tools to secure, monitor, and manage APIs are a must. As always in security, defense in depth (layers of security to ensure API clients are doing what they are supposed to be doing) is the right approach.

This includes sophisticated behavior analysis like what we are doing with Apigee Sense, to detect anomalies in traffic patterns. Just because an API client might look like your home-grown iOS app doesn’t mean that it is!

Developers want access to banking data APIs

PSD2 regulation aside, given there are over 3,000 developers on the waiting list for Teller.io, it‘s clear that demand is already there for API access to banking data. Whether and how banks want to exploit this interest is yet to be seen, but where there is unmet demand, there’s threat of disruption, as upstart challenger banks like Starling and Monzo illustrate. By building their banks API- and mobile-first, they are clearly moving to fill the void left open by the established brands.  

With mobile ubiquity and APIs being used as competitive weapons in digital-natives’ strategies, building first-class competency in API security and operations has never been more important.  

The unmet demand for programmable access to banking functions and data suggests, at best, a lack of execution among many banks. At worst, it reveals a fundamental lack of understanding of how today’s API economy works. 

Image: Flickr Creative Commons/Ofer Deshe

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