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API6:2023 Unrestricted Access to Sensitive Business Flows

Threat agents/Attack vectors Security Weakness Impacts
API Specific : Exploitability Easy Prevalence Widespread : Detectability Average Technical Moderate : Business Specific
Exploitation usually involves understanding the business model backed by the API, finding sensitive business flows, and automating access to these flows, causing harm to the business. Lack of a holistic view of the API in order to fully support business requirements tends to contribute to the prevalence of this issue. Attackers manually identify what resources (e.g. endpoints) are involved in the target workflow and how they work together. If mitigation mechanisms are already in place, attackers need to find a way to bypass them. In general technical impact is not expected. Exploitation might hurt the business in different ways, for example: prevent legitimate users from purchasing a product, or lead to inflation in the internal economy of a game.

Is the API Vulnerable?

When creating an API Endpoint, it is important to understand which business flow it exposes. Some business flows are more sensitive than others, in the sense that excessive access to them may harm the business.

Common examples of sensitive business flows and risk of excessive access associated with them:

  • Purchasing a product flow - an attacker can buy all the stock of a high-demand item at once and resell for a higher price (scalping)
  • Creating a comment/post flow - an attacker can spam the system
  • Making a reservation - an attacker can reserve all the available time slots and prevent other users from using the system

The risk of excessive access might change between industries and businesses. For example - creation of posts by a script might be considered as a risk of spam by one social network, but encouraged by another social network.

An API Endpoint is vulnerable if it exposes a sensitive business flow, without appropriately restricting the access to it.

Example Attack Scenarios

Scenario #1

A technology company announces they are going to release a new gaming console on Thanksgiving. The product has a very high demand and the stock is limited. An attacker writes code to automatically buy the new product and complete the transaction.

On the release day, the attacker runs the code distributed across different IP addresses and locations. The API doesn't implement the appropriate protection and allows the attacker to buy the majority of the stock before other legitimate users.

Later on, the attacker sells the product on another platform for a much higher price.

Scenario #2

An airline company offers online ticket purchasing with no cancellation fee. A user with malicious intentions books 90% of the seats of a desired flight.

A few days before the flight the malicious user canceled all the tickets at once, which forced the airline to discount the ticket prices in order to fill the flight.

At this point, the user buys herself a single ticket that is much cheaper than the original one.

Scenario #3

A ride-sharing app provides a referral program - users can invite their friends and gain credit for each friend who has joined the app. This credit can be later used as cash to book rides.

An attacker exploits this flow by writing a script to automate the registration process, with each new user adding credit to the attacker's wallet.

The attacker can later enjoy free rides or sell the accounts with excessive credits for cash.

How To Prevent

The mitigation planning should be done in two layers:

  • Business - identify the business flows that might harm the business if they are excessively used.
  • Engineering - choose the right protection mechanisms to mitigate the business risk.

Some of the protection mechanisms are more simple while others are more difficult to implement. The following methods are used to slow down automated threats:

  • Device fingerprinting: denying service to unexpected client devices (e.g headless browsers) tends to make threat actors use more sophisticated solutions, thus more costly for them
  • Human detection: using either captcha or more advanced biometric solutions (e.g. typing patterns)
  • Non-human patterns: analyze the user flow to detect non-human patterns (e.g. the user accessed the "add to cart" and "complete purchase" functions in less than one second)
  • Consider blocking IP addresses of Tor exit nodes and well-known proxies

Secure and limit access to APIs that are consumed directly by machines (such as developer and B2B APIs). They tend to be an easy target for attackers because they often don't implement all the required protection mechanisms.