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API Security

What is an API token? Quick Guide

What is an API token? Quick Guide

Behind every highly integrated, communicative, and scalable application that we see around us is at least one API. It’s indeed revolutionizing the modern-day application development process and improving it on every front. That said, its weak security profile is a matter of concern for many.

If not well protected, APIs become entry-point for cyberpunks. API token improves the security standing of this vital development entity. Explore more about it as the post proceeds.


Learning Objectives

What is an API token?

In simple language, an API token or access token is a bunch of unique code bundled with every API and features user-specific information. Structure-wise an API token is a minute entity yet entails a huge amount of data.

They are device-specific. API tokens for smartphones won’t work for laptops or vice versa. Each time a user uses a different device for login or accessing APIs, a distinct API token is required. It may sound messy and time-consuming but it improves the security standing. As it prevents over-exploitation and prediction of a single API.

They follow a standard authorization and authentication process while forming a federation or domain. The APIs involved in such workflow tend to be based on a shared model.


Elements Of API Token

The data storage is possible because of the structural components of an API token, which are three in number. Each one behaves distinctively and is responsible for a certain aspect of data storage. Those three structural components of an API token are:

  • Payload

Holding the highest importance, the payload is the unique passkey that API uses. Each API resource will demand

  • Header

It’s the header that provides the token format-related information to the APIs. By proffering this information, the header assists APIs to decide what information they can expect out of a token. As it makes most of the part of an API token, it’s often referred to as ‘API body’ as well.

Details related to user session expiration and permission are also stored in the header section.

  • Signature

The payload is the most important part of the API token. It’s essentially a passkey for the API. A particular API resource will require a certain asset in the API token payload. If it’s not there or is incorrect, the caller won’t be able to access that resource.

All these three components form an API. Based on the project requirements, API developers can decide on the API token receive process.

API token

API Key vs Token

Both these resources shared the same goals, improving API security, but in a different manner. Just like API tokens, API keys also feature string-based text. But, it’s not as informative as API token.

Every concerned entity and server has a distinct API key that is shared for every acceptable API request. Just like every time a user has to provide login passwords and email to access a service, an API key has to be provided to access an API.

API tokens are unique so are API keys. The key goal of API keys is to verify the application while API tokens are used for user verification. API key uses limited information as application verification isn’t that extensive a job.

But, user verification is extensive, and will ask for more details. Hence, the API token will store more data. This is both a boon and bane.

With more information verification ought to be precise. But, huge data makes API tokens very complex.

Remember, they are not easy to handle. Struggles are more when you use them in IoT applications.

When it comes to standardization, API tokens outperform the API keys as the latter option lacks standardization. They are introduced as per the requirement of the application.

Because of this reason only, API key usage is on the decline. Contrary to this, API tokens are utterly standardized. Each token features three components.

Regardless of the type of application, the API token is of the same kind. Hence, its adoption is on the rise.

At the structural level, they are poles apart. API keys are less granular when compared with API tokens. Hence, any API key compromise will lead to application threats.

API tokens, on the other hand, are more granular. This is why they have better security control. Its compromise won’t cause much harm to the application. As the API token is revoked immediately when an error or any malicious activity is spotted.


The Basic Modus Operandi Of API Tokens

Functionality wise, API tokens are very much similar to APIs. There is a payload linked with a token in a hashed format. It follows a standard protocol that includes pre-defined instructions. These instructions go like this.

Using the payload, the username and password information of the concerned user are verified. After successful verification, API forwards an asset to the end-users browser that is stored somewhere safe.

For every user-side query request that API receives, an access token comes with it. The job of the access token here is to make sure API is accessible for the respective user till the time token is usable.

Depending upon the API token authentication process adopted, the process can also use the SSO or Single-Sign-on token. The best example of this is using Facebook login details for 3rd party services. Such tokens remain active only for a limited time and prevent creating different login details for different services.


API Tokens and 0Auth 2.0

API security is a non-negotiable aspect and OAuth 2.0 is one of the most viable approaches for this task.

An improved version of OAuth, OAuth 2.0 contributes immensely toward web-based and mobile APIs. By monitoring user access and implementing the end-the-end security approaches, OAuth 2.0 promises non-compromised API security.

Now, let’s try to understand the relationships between OAuth 2.0 and API tokens. An external server is widely used to store sensitive user credentials related to login details, passwords, and credit card details.

In such a situation, OAuth 2.0 implementation makes API developers and end-users trustworthy for each other. API tokens are part of OAuth 2.0 as well and are used on the user side. By granting future API users a better hold over user information, API tokens prevent repetitive information logging, erroneous entry, and data exploitation.

SSL is a place in OAuth 2.0 and is responsible for user-side data and privacy protection. In SSL, API tokens permit access and deliver instant actions in case of any wrong actions.

API Tokens Best Practices

The effective implementation of API tokens is subjective and varies as per the need of the hour. However, they are certainly standardized.

API token execution approaches whose adoption derives the best possible results. Businesses have to delve deeper into each strategy and select one that suits the best.

Some of the most preferred API token adoption strategies include:

  • OAuth 2.0 API tokens are the best bet to make when API tokens are used for a user-side application. Such a token is easy to handle and will make continual communication with the resource server involved.
  • For APIs to offer a product or service for 3rd party applications, simple API tokens are preferred. The same token type is favored for any automation–dependent applications.
  • The best API token usage approach is to keep all the crucial authentication related information in an Authorization: Bearer object. Make sure that the JSON file is used. Also, replace the string-based authentication with JWT format as it’s highly optimized and is compatible with most programming languages.
  • Adopt the best API token authentication practices to safeguard the data they carry. For instance, you can use a strong algorithm for API tokens. Verify every request that you receive, and blacklist the IP addresses involved in sending malicious requests.
  • Using MFA (multi-factor) for authenticating API tokens is also an ideal approach to improve overall security. The approach combines two more authentication resources to avoid information compromise.


Conclusion

Considering the present-day situation and popularity of APIs, concluding that APIs are the future won’t be erroneous. They are going to stay and are not about to lose a single inch of their popularity any time soon. As you’re going to use it extensively, you need to find a way to fix its poor security profile.

The API token is an effective way to improve API security. By attaching a distinct value to every user's data information, API tokens improve API privacy and security. Make way for them and include them in your API security approach.

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