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API Security

What is an API key - meaning & using 🔑

What is an API key - meaning & using 🔑

The development of modern-day applications isn’t possible without APIs, and the API implementation isn’t an achievable task without knowing the API key.

Important for effective API security, API keys bear tons of responsibilities on their shoulders. Do you intend to use the API in full capacity? First, strengthen your understanding of the API key, its usage, and management. 

Learn everything - from the API key meaning to its management in this post.

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What Is an API Key?

It is simply a code or an identifier. This key works as an ID card for API that allows seamless authenticity-verification of API end-users. Whether it’s the developer or the application, API key implementation helps in the identification of both with the same ease and perfection.

It is unique and discreet, which means every new API client/application will have a security code to use as an API key. They are generally offered via white-labeled internal platforms or service providers. Anticipated API users will require API keys to use the API. 

When an API user makes a request to use an API, the API will ask for an API key and verify it. It’s only after successful verification that API access is granted to the end-user.

What is the API key for?

In the API domain, the API key serves 2 main purposes broadly:

  • Doing Need-based Project Authorization

API keys are widely used in classifying the project and its users. They are critical for project authorization which is possible in two ways. 

As each project will feature distinct API keys, they are useful for project authorization. They find out whether the API access request is coming from a verified source. They can help you find out the API call origination source. 

  • For Authentication of Users

Use API keys to create multiple user authentication schemes so that it’s doable to find out which caller is asking for API access. An API key is what endpoints/devices refer to figure out that the user is permitted to make access to API. API servers also use API keys to decide user access criteria. 

Using API keys

You can only relish the claimed benefits of API keys when you where to use them and where not to use them. Interested to know how to use the API key? Scroll down to know more about it.

When can I use it?

API keys bring the best outcome when:

  • You need to obstruct any unwanted traffic. If you’re not sure about the traffic source, you must not entertain it as it could be a hacking attempt. With the use of API keys, it’s possible to control traffic access.
  • API calls needed to be controlled. The more API calls are made, the more risk API has. So, it’s better to control the API calls. Apply the API key and make it happen seamlessly.  
  • There is a need to know the API traffic pattern. API traffic patterns help AppSec experts to spot any wicked action in its infancy. Also, it’s useful to find out any technical/operational flaws. API keys are useful to track the API traffic pattern and identify any of these possibilities at an early stage.
  • You need to keep filter logs. API keys will help you log the API server activities and filter them as per the need of the hour.

When not to use?

There is no point in investing asked API key implementation efforts if:

  • You need to back or protect the authorization strategy used. They are good but not as good as authentication tokens. So, don’t use them for API authorization. 
  • You need to find out the details of the project creator. API keys are not useful on this front.
  • You need to recognize the distinct API users. API Key authentication is incompetent at finding out who is accessing the APIs.

Note: If you want to know about API Key vs Token, you must understand that tokens have wide scope while API keys have per-application implementation scope. Tokens are temporary-lived and have less chance of cyber dangers. API keys, unless you use secured keys, can exist for a long time.

Using API keys
Using API keys

How to get API Key?

You need to contact an API key provider to get an API key. For instance, if you want to use a Google Maps API Key, you need to have a developer account on the platform. Based on the API key type, prerequisites can vary. 

For instance, the Google Maps key asks for a minimum of one API key beforehand. You need to go to the credential page and click on the Create API key section. As per the promoted instructions, you can construct API keys. 

Once the API key generation is complete, don’t forget to limit the API key to prevent overconsumption or usage. Add the API key to the request as per the need of the hour.

API key security

As this key determines the API usage, its security should be top-notch. Any stolen, leaked, or compromised API means no application security.

Hackers will be able to control the application if they have a hand in it. Hence, one should be informed about the best API key security practices. We’re going to explain the preferred ones here.

Create rate limits for APIs so that only required and important API calls are made. It reduces API exploitation.

  • Check the API permissions carefully and make sure no unwanted permissions are granted.  
  • For timely and accurate identification of any ill or damaging activity/API behavior, you must deploy effective attack detection approaches.  
  • Never accept API requests that are beyond the pre-defined API norms or force you to violate any privacy terms.
  • Try to update and create new API keys regularly. It doesn’t matter if you do it manually or automatically but do it. Don’t keep one API key in use for long. This API key management approach prevents over usage of API keys that act like a boon for hackers.
  • Use the Secured API Key whenever it’s possible. It has an improved security profile as it lives for a short period and is not viewable from Dashboard.
  • Always use JWT tokens for user authentication
  • Implement the same kind of encryption on both the user side and on API servers. Encryption application is an ideal API security practice as it makes the API key unreadable.

Adopt these API key security practices and ensure API keys are safe before they are used to protect the API followed by the application.

How do platforms use API keys? - Examples

Seeing the deeper API penetration, it’s easy to predict that API keys will have wider implementation scope. They are so common that you will be surrounded by them but fail to spot them. Here are a few API examples from the real world on how to use API Key:

  1. Google Maps API Key

Google Maps is world-famous and deploys API keys to protect map data requests. Willing to use this API key? Just set up a developer account, and you’re all set to use Google Maps APIs. What makes it a famous API key is the freedom granted to the end-users. Developers can limit it and only accept domains or HTTP-secured requests.

  1. Stripe API Key

Stripe is a name to trust as its payment processing server is a word called. It offers an API key service as well. Two key types are offered. The Stripe API key example is “publishable.” This is a public key and is used to integrate your original Stripe account with other services. 

The second key type is the “Secret” API key which is a discrete key. With its help, you’re allowed to raise any request with Stripe. Two pairs of both kinds of API keys are offered. One is useful for the live application, while the other is useful for API testing.

We hope that this article could serve its purpose of helping you out in grabbing full understanding about API Keys.

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