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4 API authentication methods to better protect data in transit

The API attack surface isn't always well protected. Learn about the authentication methods your company can use to secure its APIs.

Protecting API communications has become a top priority for IT security teams as APIs rapidly become a popular target for hackers. This problem will only worsen as perimeterless deployments become common. Organizations can lower the risk of data theft by implementing API authentication mechanisms.

Integrating two or more applications or services together is usually performed via an API. This set of protocols and tools enables other applications and services to extract relevant data for a multitude of purposes. Because API use has exploded in the past few years, the increased interest often attracts bad actors who are laser-focused on exploiting API communications at organizations that have failed to properly secure them.

Learn how API frameworks affect what API authentication methods can be used, along with four commonly implemented options available and how to select one.

Understand the API frameworks used

Not every API authentication method will work in a given organization. The methods used depend on the API framework. The developer of the application or platform used determines what code and functions can be used within the API. This includes different options to secure communications between two or more devices. Some APIs have more authentication methods available within their framework compared to others.

It's up to administrators to determine what API authentication methods are possible with the APIs they work with and what method is best for their deployment use case.

Common API authentication methods

While there are dozens of open and proprietary API authentication methods available, there are four common methods most administrators will see and interact with over the course of their professional career.

1. HTTP basic authentication

If a simple form of HTTP authentication is all an app or service requires, HTTP basic authentication might be a good fit. It uses a locally derived username and password and relies on Base64 encoding. Authentication uses the HTTP header, making it easy to integrate. Because this method uses shared credentials, however, it's important to rotate passwords on a regular basis.

2. API access tokens

API keys have unique identifiers for each user and for every time they attempt to authenticate. Access tokens are suitable for applications where many users require access. Access tokens are secure and easy to work with from an end-user perspective.

3. OAuth with OpenID

Despite having auth in the name, OAuth is not an authentication mechanism. Instead, it provides authorization services to determine which users have access to various corporate resources. OAuth is used alongside OpenID, an authentication mechanism. Using OAuth and OpenID together provides authentication and authorization. With OAuth 2.0, OpenID can authenticate users and devices using a third-party authentication system. This combination is considered one of the more secure authentication/authorization options available today.

4. SAML federated identity

Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML) is another tokenlike authentication method often used in environments that have federated single sign-on (SSO) implemented. This XML-derived open standard framework helps seamlessly authenticate users through the organization's respective identity provider. For larger organizations working to consolidate the number of authentication mechanisms within the company, the use of SAML and federated SSO is a great fit.

Choosing the right API authentication mechanism

When choosing the type of API authentication mechanism to implement, there are three factors to consider:

  1. Understand what API authentication methods are available in your given API framework.
  2. Choose the API authentication that provides the proper level of security without being overly complex.
  3. From an ongoing administration and management perspective, choose the API authentication method that fits into your existing, corporatewide authentication infrastructure.

Understanding these three aspects of API authentication helps narrow your options so you can implement an authentication method that offers the right balance of security without sacrificing ease of management.

This was last published in December 2021

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