How To Authenticate Your API

by David Valdez
How To Authenticate Your API

When you’re using a website or app, odds are that there’s an API involved somewhere in the process. API stands for “application programming interface.” Any time you have two or more applications integrated, there’s an API helping them work together. The tools and protocols in the API allow other apps and services to extract data for whatever purpose is needed.

Because the API acts as a go-between, you don’t have to be an expert on how they’re implemented. APIs simplify design, administration, and use. Whether creating new products and services or handling existing ones, API integration provides flexibility and room to innovate.

Logging In With API

You can think of an API as a kind of online ID verification. An example many people would be familiar with is when logging in to one site or application using your login from another site or application. If you’ve been prompted with something like using your Facebook login to log in to a non-Facebook site, you’ll get the idea.

In that case, when you go to log in:

  • The API detects whether you’re already logged in
  • If not, a pop-up will ask if you want to log in using your Facebook account
  • You can choose whether or not to log in using Facebook
  • If you do want to use your Facebook account, the API provides your identification information
  • You can now log in using your Facebook account

The whole idea of API authentication is to put a stop to hackers who are looking for vulnerabilities to exploit. If the information being input doesn’t match what the API expects to see, access is denied. It can be thought of as a gatekeeper that links requests with user data. Without this level of security, anyone could go in and make unwanted changes to your accounts. Headlines about exposed data through hacking events should help make this understandable.

Authentication Versus Authorization

It’s important to know the difference between authentication and authorization with APIs. They’re similar in concept but different in application. Authentication is proving your identity; it’s a way to show that you are who you are. Authorization, on the other hand, is proving your right to access what you’re trying to access. Your driver’s license authenticates who you say you are; but if you’re under 21, you still won’t have permission to use it to access a bar.

Ways To Authenticate Your API

There is no one way to authenticate APIs because there are so many open and proprietary API authentication methods. They are all mostly different takes on the same four methods. By and large, these were developed in the early days of internet technology. They use novel implementations with widely available architectural approaches for authentication.

1. HTTP Basic Authentication

As the name implies, HTTP basic authentication is a simpler approach using Base64 encoding. It’s easy to integrate because authentication uses an HTTP header and locally acquired usernames and passwords. There is no need for session IDs, cookies, and login pages. Its simplicity is also a vulnerability; rotating passwords regularly is a good idea because of the nature of its shared credentials.

2. API Access Tokens

API access tokens are a step up from HTTP basic authorization and similar methods. The token is a uniquely generated code allocated for each user every time they attempt to authenticate. Users will use that code for verification every time they want to log in. They’re secure and easy to work with, and especially handy where multiple users require access.

3. OAuth with OpenID

OAuth with OpenID is a method that combines both authorization and authentication. It sorts out which users have authorization access to given resources versus those who don’t. The OpenID component serves as the authentication mechanism; between the two, users and devices are confirmed using a third-party authentication process. OAuth with OpenID is regarded as an effective, reliable option in today’s market.

4. SAML Federated Identity

SAML, or “Security Assertion Markup Language,” has characteristics similar to API access tokens and connects identity management systems. The user provides credentials to the identity provider which then connects to the service provider. The whole idea behind federated identity (or “federated single sign-on”) is to allow authorized users secure access to multiple domains and apps using just one set of credentials.

Final Thoughts

It’s easy to ask which one is the best, but the answer will depend on your situation. There are three questions to ask when choosing which type of API authentication mechanism to use:

  1. What API authentication methods are available in your API framework?
  2. Which API authentication method is simplest while providing the right level of security?
  3. Which API authentication method best fits into your existing authentication structure?

Internet security is more important than ever. Everyone in your network will appreciate the extra hurdles to keep them and their data safe.

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