API Authentication: What Is It? | Dreamfactory

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Locks representing API authentication

With cybercrime continuing to grow at an alarming rate and cybercriminals getting increasingly clever about how they get their hands on your precious data, API authentication is more important than ever.

If you've ever logged into an app or website using your Facebook or Google account, then you've used API authentication. APIs are the backbone of the internet. They allow disparate systems and login pages to communicate, exchanging user data and triggering actions. But with great power comes great responsibility, and APIs must be properly secured to prevent misuse. That's where API authentication comes in. By requiring developers to provide a key or token, API providers can ensure that only authorized end-users have access to the data.

Why Is API Authentication So Important?

In today's digital world, data security and the protection of precious user data are more important than ever. A single data breach can jeopardize the safety of billions of people, as well as the reputation of a company. Health data breaches alone increased by 80% between 2017 and 2019. API authentication is a validation process that verifies the identity of a user before allowing them to access an API. This helps ensure that only authorized users are able to access sensitive information. In addition, API authentication can also help prevent malicious actors from accessing data they should not have access to.

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Common API Authentication Methods

There are a variety of ways to authenticate an API request. Basic Auth and OAuth are the most common methods, but there are also Token-Based Auth, MAC Auth, and Query-Based Auth. Each validation has advantages and disadvantages, so it's important to choose the right one for your use case and user authentication needs.

Basic Auth

Basic Auth is the simplest type of authentication, and it involves sending an HTTP header containing a username and password — also known as HTTP basic authentication. The biggest advantage of Basic Auth is that it's easy to set up, and it's an authentication process supported by most web servers. However, the downside is that the client credentials (AKA username and password) are sent in plain text, which makes it less secure than other client application methods, and it's also vulnerable to exploits such as password brute-forcing. If API security and endpoint security are concerns, you might want to consider using a more robust form of authentication.


The other main category of API authentication is OAuth (OAuth authentication), which relies on an asymmetric keypair. OAuth (or OAuth 2.0) is a bit more complex than Basic Auth, but it offers better end-user and endpoint security. With OAuth, the client has a public and private key, and the server has a public key. The client uses its private key to sign each request, and the server uses its public key to verify the signature. Once they're logged in, they're given an access token that can be used to access the API.

The advantage of this approach is that the user's credentials are never stored on the server or transmitted over the network. The downside is that while OAuth is more secure than Basic Auth, it’s also more complex to implement. OAuth is a popular standard for authorization that can be used for both web applications and APIs. It's more secure than basic authentication protocol and supports multiple levels of authorization, such as the increasingly popular two-factor authentication. However, its heightened complexity to set up and use might deter some developers from using it.

JSON Web Tokens

Another popular option is to use JSON Web Tokens. Also known as JWTs, these tokens are essentially a string of text used to represent a user's identity. When a user attempts to access an API, they will need to provide a valid JWT. JWTs can be signed with a secret key, which helps ensure they have not been tampered with. The API will then use the information in the token to verify the user's identity and determine whether they have permission to access the data. Additionally, JWTs can be stored in a variety of places, such as cookies or local storage. This makes them more flexible than other types of authentication tokens, which may need to be stored in a separate database. JWTS are becoming increasingly popular for API authentication because they are easy to use and offer a high level of security.

APIs provide a ton of benefits for organizations. However, they are not without their challenges. Read about the top four challenges with API development and how DreamFactory can help overcome them.

MAC Auth

MAC auth is a type of API authentication that uses Message Authentication Codes (MACs) to verify the identity of a user. MACs are similar to passwords, but they are typically generated by a computer algorithm and are not easily guessed by humans. Like passwords, MACs can be used to protect API keys and other sensitive data. When using MAC auth, the API server first generates a MAC for each user. The user then supplies this MAC when making API requests. The API server can use the MAC to verify the user's identity and ensure that the request is coming from a trusted source. MAC auth is often used in conjunction with other authentication methods, such as OAuth, to provide an extra layer of security.

Query-Based Auth

Query-based auth is a form of API authentication that uses a query string in the URL to pass information about the user. This information can include the user's name, email address, and password. Query-based auth is a convenient way to provide authentication for APIs, as it does not require the user to enter their credentials every time they make a request. Instead, the credentials are sent with each request, and the API can then determine whether or not the user is authorized to access the data.

Query-based auth is also a great option for APIs that need to support multiple users, as it allows each user to have their own credentials. However, query-based auth is not without its drawbacks. One major downside is that it can be susceptible to man-in-the-middle attacks, as the credentials are passed in plain text. Another concern is that many web browsers will cache the credentials, meaning they could be compromised if the computer is stolen or hacked.

Whatever API your organization chooses to implement, API security best practices are a must-have. Read about tips and practices to keep your system safe.

Getting Started with DreamFactory

Authentication is a must-do in today’s day and age. Whatever your organization’s authentication needs might look like, DreamFactory can provide instant APIs without code. Giving you the ability to integrate all enterprise data on a single platform, DreamFactory has a tremendous range of authentication services designed to meet your security needs. Book your free 14-day trial today, and experience the DreamFactory difference.

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