APIs and why they matter

Date: 17 Dec 2019

By: Omaru Maruatona

Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) are protocols for accessing data or services from an organisation. For companies that use them, APIs are tunnels that allow systems to communicate with each other.

One of the earliest examples of an API is the Google Map API. Many companies incorporate this API into their websites and systems to provide their customers the location of a place and how to get there. Nowadays, APIs drive almost every function that users invoke for an online service — from transferring money online to booking a flight, to a simple task such as ordering a take-away meal online. Even tweeting involves an API. Twitter revealed in 2010 that over 75% of their traffic comes from their API.  

For many organisations, the strategic value of APIs lies in three key advantages — automation, innovation and optimisation. First, APIs allow organisations to have a seamless connection of previously unconnected systems. This enables end to end automation of digital service delivery. 

APIs also help organisations to expand their service scope and to introduce continuous, major transformations to their products or service offerings. This drives innovation as organisations are no longer limited by technology to translate new ideas into services that customers find valuable. 

Third, by having automation and innovation advantages, organisations get to a point where they can do more with fewer resources, and are consistently relevant to their target market. This paves the way for factors that drive efficiency and optimisation, such as reduced business costs and increased revenue. A 2015 Harvard Business Review article demonstrates the revenue factor. It reported that Salesforce, Expedia and eBay respectively generated 50%, 90% and 60% of their revenue through APIs.

Newer use cases for APIs are being introduced and more organisations are incorporating APIs into their digital service delivery. ZDNet cited a Forrester Research that predicted a fourfold increase in spending for API management, which underlines this trend in API adoption and usage. As the value of APIs are increasingly uncovered, businesses, governments and other organisations are also increasingly reliant on their APIs—to the extent a disruption to an API might halt an entire business.

The security of APIs in organisations is as important as the data they carry. Any compromise to their security or unauthorised access to these data can be costly for an organisation. A 2019 report by IBM and Ponemon Institute showed that globally an organisation stands to lose an average of over $3 million from a data breach. 

In 2018, Threatpost reported that T-Mobile had alerted over 2 million of its customers of a data breach caused by a “leaky” API. In the same year, The Guardian reported that a Berlin-based researcher, Hang Do Thi Duc—in a quest to reveal how a payment app can expose our private lives—had accessed and analysed over 200 million customer transactions through an external API of Venmo, a Paypal payment service. These are just a few examples of prominent breaches. And unfortunately the API attack surface, all the ways an API can be breached, is only going to get bigger.

APIs have transformed digital service delivery and have become the engines of modern technology consumption. However, their security has not matched their rapid advancement. The state of API security is best reflected by the growing number of API breaches even in large, resourceful organisations. For most of these companies, a $3 million loss from an API breach may not be significant, but the reputational damage arising from a breach can well be. 

About the author

Dr Omaru Maruatona is the CEO of Aiculus, a Cyber-AI company that helps organisations embrace API technology without increasing their risk profile. Aiculus is one of the 10 companies in ICE71 Accelerate cohort 3. Omaru is an experienced Cyber Security and Machine Learning practitioner and has been working in the API security space for over 2 years. Omaru has previously worked with a big Australian bank in Machine Learning based fraud detection. He has also worked for a global Share registry organisation as a Technical Security Analyst and for a Big Four consulting firm in Cyber Security Architecture and Strategy. Omaru is a thought leader in Cyber-AI and regularly publishes and speaks at various academic and industry conferences. 

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