As the name suggests, API keys are simply an authentication password between computer applications. They are widely used anywhere applications are present. If you are wondering, ‘How do API keys work?’ or ‘What is an API key?’, we discuss it all in this article.
API Keys: What are they?
An API key is a piece of code that acts as a unique identifier of users, developers, and the programs making the API call.
Before we discuss what an API key is, let’s first talk about APIs. An Application Programming Interface allows software applications to interact with each other, send and receive data, and share functionality. These connections between internal applications and those integrated for your consumers and business partners help organize and optimize your systems.
So, what is an API key? This key is essentially a security protocol that usually takes the form of randomly generated characters to protect your API. When one API calls another, the key is used to identify and grant access to the former. Thus, this code gets passed in by computer applications to perform two key (pun intended) tasks:
● Identification: Identifies the application or project trying to make a call to the API in question.
● Authorization: Checks whether the calling party has been granted access to make the call and if the API in question has been enabled.
API keys also allow ESP (Extensible Service Proxy), which lets you reject calls from applications you have not granted access to or enabled in the API.
When to Use APIs?
API varies a lot from user authentication. This is because the latter identifies the user (or the person using the program) instead of the program itself. An authentication token also lets the endpoint check if permission has been granted for it to make the call.
API keys can be embedded in the software of various kinds of coding languages like Java or Python. However, they cannot be used to access private data i.e. individual users, or to secure authorization. Typically, they can be used for web and mobile-based applications (which developers typically call projects) that are not attached to a back-end server.
Therefore, it is advised that they usually be used for:
● Blocking anonymous traffic. In case you need to debug an issue, API keys can identify a program’s traffic for the API producer.
● Controlling the total number of calls.
● Determining the usage patterns in your API traffic and using it to restrict project usage to specific environments or IP addresses.
How do you get an API key?
You need to request an API key from the owner of the concerned application service if you want to make a call to their API. Application owners usually publish the process for getting the key.
Obtaining the required key is a simple process. You would need to set up an account with the owner and register for the given project. Then, you would need to navigate through the documentation page on the API console to generate the new key.
API keys have widespread use nowadays. From Amazon Web Services to Google maps, all these famous platforms have utilities for these codes. Even government bodies and healthcare systems use them.
However, API keys are relatively less secure because they don’t use two-factor authentication. This means that APIs are particularly helpful in everyday business that does not necessarily require the sharing of extremely sensitive information. On a positive note, even though it is essential to keep your API key safe, a compromised key will provide limited access.
In a nutshell, despite its limited usage, API keys do play a key role in making sure that the connection and exchange of data between various applications are authorized and legitimate.
Based in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, Aditya Kapre is a software engineer at Chewy. Learn more about internships to software development.