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Snapchat Snafu!

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When the folks at Snapchat recently turned down an acquisition offer of three billion dollars, I have to admit I was shocked by their incredibly high estimation of their own importance. After all, half of their “secret sauce” is an easily-reproducible photo sharing app; the other half is the fact that their users’ parents haven’t discovered it yet. I’ll admit a bit of jealousy and the fact that my age starting with “3” makes me demographically incapable of understanding the app’s appeal. However, what I do understand is that a frightening disregard for API security might have jeopardized the entire company’s value. Loss of user trust is a fate worse than being co-opted by grandparents sharing cat pictures.

While Snapchat does not expose its API publicly, this API can easily be reverse engineered, documented and exploited. Such exploits were recently published by three students at Gibson Security and used by at least one hacker organization that collected the usernames and phone numbers of 4.6 million Snapchat users. Worse, the company has been aware of these weaknesses since August and has taken only cursory measures to curtail malicious activity.

Before we talk about what went wrong, let me first state that the actual security employed by Snapchat could be worse. Some basic security requirements have clearly been considered and simple measures such as SSL, token hashing and elementary encryption have been used to protect against the laziest of hackers. However, this security posture is incomplete at best and irresponsible at worst because it provides a veneer of safety while still exposing user data to major breaches.

There are a few obvious problems with the security on Snapchat’s API. Its “find friends” operation allows unlimited bulk calls tying phone numbers to account information; when combined with a simple number sequencer, every possible phone number can be looked up and compromised. Snapchat’s account registration can also be called in bulk, presenting the opportunity for user fraud, spam etc. And finally, the encryption that Snapchat uses for the most personal information it processes – your pictures – is weak enough to be called obfuscation rather than true encryption, especially since its shared secret key was hard-coded as a simple string constant in the app itself.

These vulnerabilities could be minimized or eliminated with some incredibly basic API Management functionality: rate limiting, better encryption, more dynamic hashing mechanisms etc. However, APIs are always going to be a potential attack vector and you can’t just focus on weaknesses discovered and reported by white hat hackers. No security – especially reactive (instead of proactive) security – is foolproof but your customer’s personal data should be sacrosanct. You need the ability to protect this personally-identifiable information, to detect when someone is trying to access or “exfiltrate” that data and to enable developers to write standards-based application code in order to implement the required security without undermining it at the same time. You need a comprehensive end-to-end solution that can protect both the edge and the data itself – and which has the intelligence to guard against unanticipated misuse.

While our enterprise customers often look to the startup world for lessons on what to do around developer experience and dynamic development, these environments sometimes also provide lessons in what not to do when it comes to security. The exploits in question happened to divulge only user telephone and username data but large-scale breaches of Snapchat images might not be far behind. When talking about an API exposed by an enterprise or governmental agency, the affected data might be detailed financial information, personal health records or classified intelligence information. The potential loss of Snapchat’s $3 billion payday is serious to its founders but lax enterprise API security could be worse for everyone else.

CA’s line of API security products – centered around the Layer 7 API Management & Security Suite for runtime enforcement of identity management, data protection, threat prevention and access control policies – can help you confidently expose enterprise-class APIs to enable your business while preventing the type of breach experienced by Snapchat, among others.

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More Stories By Jaime Ryan

Jaime Ryan is the Partner Solutions Architect for Layer 7 Technologies, and has been building secure integration architectures as a developer, architect, consultant and author for the last fifteen years. He lives in San Diego with his wife and two daughters. Follow him on Twitter at @jryanl7.