Keys and OAuth

How to easily secure your APIs with API keys and OAuth

How to easily secure your APIs with API keys and OAuth

Securing your API may sound complicated, but there are some basic things you can consider when setting up your API in a more secure way than just exposing it wide open to the public. Authenticating a consumer is a first step towards:

  • Allowing access to your APIs only for a designated group of clients
  • Being able to say who is consuming your APIs and how much
  • Allowing you to block clients that misbehave or are no longer part of the target group of clients

In this blog, I will review the two most popular mechanisms to protect your APIs: API key and OAuth2, but keep in mind there is much more to API security than this. For more reading on the topic, check out API protection: How to create a fortress around your data.

API keys

Introducing API keys is easy, since all API gateways nowadays support this mechanism. Just issue a “secret” or “phrase” between you and the consumer. Every time a protected API is called, this key must be present and an API gateway will be able to verify it.

Setting an API key as an API security measure is very easy, but it is important to follow best practices. There are also drawbacks.

For example, you should avoid putting the API key inside the URL as a “query parameter,” because proxies and all involved systems are likely to store it in their logs. It is better to use a dedicated HTTP header.

There is a security risk with using an API key: any client with a valid key can access a protected API(s). Using TLS (Transport Layer Security) helps to alleviate such a situation, but the risk still exists. If you want to use API key protection, at the very least you should generate a separate API key for a specific app/client and API. That way, if this API key is compromised, the security impact is smaller.

One way is to extend the authentication with an additional secret that needs to be provided too. This alone does not introduce more security, but you can use this to do some smart things like HMAC (Hash-based Message Authentication Code).

HMAC starts to include an encrypted signature as an API key instead of submitting the real key. With some nice additions like a timestamp, this signature can be a powerful way to introduce protection.

See for example how Amazon Web Services style API keys have been designed including a key ID and a secret key which are used together to authenticate securely the client. The API key ID is included in all requests to identify the client. The secret key is known only to the client and the API gateway.

It will require some code on your client and server, but most languages and frameworks provide support. To learn more, check out this blog post to learn how to protect your API Keys.


While the API key mechanism is easy and well understood, OAuth provides an alternative solution, considered more secure and better suitable to support a large number of users. OAuth is a way to separate the Authentication Process from the Access to the Resource and therefore limit the exposure of the credentials.

OAuth relies on a delegation mechanism. App providers rely on a centralized service (called an Authorization Server) that authenticates users and generates Access Tokens. These tokens are used to log in to any application protected by OAuth and access resources.

Some usage examples could be:

  • A Gmail user would like LinkedIn to access their contact list without sharing their Gmail username and password
  • A photo printing website user would like the website to access his pictures on Flickr
  • A company would like its customers to access a subset of its services through a partner website without the partner knowing the customer credentials
  • A company would like to develop a mobile app where the user credentials are never stored on the mobile app

One scenario you often see is Social Login where you use GitHub, LinkedIn, Google, or Facebook to log into a Web app. For example, Google can act as an Authorization Server.

When you access your Web app protected with OAuth, that app redirects you to Google Authorization Server. You log in to your Google account and accept consent listing the permissions the Authorization Server will give to the app.

Now, your Web app can get an access token from Google Authorization Server to access resources (like APIs, email, photos, posts, etc.) on your behalf. This is known as Authorization Code Flow.


Roles inside an OAuth Flow


OAuth2 vs API keys

API keys can be an easy way to enforce some authentication, while OAuth is more sophisticated with more options.

Here are some of the benefits of OAuth2 over the API key:

  • Access token is tied to a specific user, not an app
  • User credentials are never exposed to an app, authentication is done in a single place – Authorization Server
  • Management of users and tokens are delegated to a 3rd party (must be trusted by your Web or mobile apps)
  • Access tokens must be re-generated periodically (the period is configurable)
  • It is much easier to revoke a compromised Access token, and the impact is usually much smaller than with an API key

Be aware there are some caveats with OAuth 2.0, it’s not secure by default! Notably, it requires more knowledge to implement correctly, not only on the client, but also on the server side.

Protect your APIs with a comprehensive solution

Protecting your API does not have to be difficult. API keys and OAuth are a first step toward a more secure API. Please note that API throttling and quota limits should also be applied, together with other measures and best practices.

API management tools such as Axway’s Amplify Platform provide an easy way to protect your APIs and turn on authentication with a few clicks. Automated security tools like linting allow enterprises to perform semantic checks on APIs, ensuring they meet all corporate standards and are free of issues. Axway API Gateway’s Common Criteria – Evaluation Assurance Level 4 augmented or plus (CC EAL4+) certification means we can help you meet the most demanding security requirements.

Especially important is a universal API management foundation, where all your APIs are brought together in one repository. This means they can be easily managed, discovered, and secured – regardless of where they are deployed. And common tracking and reporting allow you to pull API usage metrics to get a more comprehensive view of your APIs.

Once you’ve secured your APIs, you’ll be able to make the shift to driving engagement and maximizing value for API products with the tools you need to deliver real business capability.

Download our checklist of 10 best practices for comprehensive API security.

Key Takeaways

  • API Keys are easily set up through most gateways, but beware of potential exposure, especially if included in URLs; consider additional security measures like HMAC.
  • OAuth2 delegates authentication to an Authorization Server, tying access tokens to users for heightened security in diverse scenarios.
  • OAuth2 vs API Keys: OAuth2 offers user-specific access tokens, centralized authentication, and easier token revocation; API keys are simpler but less secure.
  • API keys and OAuth are initial steps; consider API throttling, quota limits, and best practices; tools like Axway's Amplify Platform simplify security with universal API management.