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What Is an API Key? API Keys Definition and Meaning

A person using a laptop to get an api key

An API or Application Programming Interface enables two applications to talk to each other. It is a set of protocols and functions that act as a middleman between two apps or software, allowing them to interact and exchange data. Using an API, an application can access another application or software’s data, functionality and features. For example, developers use a Facebook Graph API to access specific functionality and data from the Facebook platform. Hence, the use of APIs for application development is increasing dramatically. One common and important term associated with the use of APIs is an API key.

This article will discuss what API keys are and when and how to use an API key. We’ll also discuss where you can find the best and most secure APIs for your apps.

What Is An API Key?

Since APIs provide sensitive data to the app calling them using API endpoints, they first need a way to identify the app. And this is what API keys are for.

An API key is essentially a code that the API uses to identify the user or the app calling the API. It is typically a combination of alphanumeric and special characters, such as ‘abg.def-128745,’ and is a unique code or authentication token that helps with the identification of a particular project or application making the request. However, these keys don’t allow APIs to identify individual users, project owners or creators.

An API key is also useful for project authorization and authentication, allowing the API to determine whether the app making the request has permission to use it and which features and functionality it can use. This is because, sometimes, an app is allowed to access only limited features of an API.

Hence, API keys allow APIs to control and monitor how they are being used or utilized, which helps prevent unauthorized access, misuse or abuse of the API. The key typically comes with access rights for that particular API. When the user makes an API request, the key is attached to the request through the query string parameter in the request body, header, URL and cookie. The API then analyzes the key and either accepts or denies the request.

What Are API Keys Used For?

API key - a person writing code on a laptop

In addition to project authorization and authentication, you can use API keys for:

Monitor API Traffic Using API Keys

API keys allow you to monitor and analyze API traffic and identify application traffic. You can then determine usage patterns to detect malicious activities and issues with the API.

Control API Calls Consumption

Another useful application of API keys is controlling API consumption or the number of API requests/calls users make. For example, API providers can use the key to ensure only legitimate traffic or users access the API. It is also used to limit access to the API’s interface.

Block Unknown Traffic

Since API keys allow you to identify traffic, you can block any unknown or anonymous traffic which may be associated with potential malicious activity.

How To Get and Use An API Key?

Developers need to get an API access key before they start using the API. Most APIs provide all the details regarding acquiring the API key and using the API in the API documentation. Typically, users must create an account and register their project by providing the necessary information. Next, they get a unique key consisting of randomly generated characters for their project.

Sometimes, an API provides two keys called ‘private key’ and ‘public key.’ The private key provides access to your developer account and all the associated data. Hence, you shouldn’t share it with anyone. A public key, on the other hand, provides limited access to the data and API functionally, and you can share it with other collaborators.

You can find details regarding API key usage in the API documentation. Here is an example of how to use the ipstack (an IP to geolocation API) key:

API key usage example

Do API Keys Help Improve API Security?

With the increase in cyberattacks in recent years, API security has become extremely important. This is because APIs provide private and confidential data to the app making the request, and cybercriminals can easily attack an insecure API to access sensitive data, such as personal details and login credentials, and misuse it. For example, insecure APIs are usually vulnerable to DDoS (Distributed Denial-of-Service,) broken access control and injection.

When it comes to API keys, they aren’t considered very secure. Firstly, an API key can only identify and authenticate the project or application calling the API. It doesn’t authenticate the individual user sending the request. Hence, if the key owner doesn’t secure it safely, cyberattackers can steal it and misuse it. Moreover, API keys typically don’t have any expiration date, meaning a cyber attacker can use them for an indefinite period unless the owner generates a new API key.

Hence, developers use other ways of securing an API, such as HTTPS protocol or SSL. Moreover, many secure APIs today also implement user authentication and user authorization methods using authentication tokens and OAuth protocol. These methods enable the API to authenticate and verify an individual user instead of the application making the requests.

Where Can You Find The Best and Most Secure APIs for Your Apps?

API key - APILayer API marketplace for selling and finding a wide range of APIs

APILayer is a leading API marketplace where API providers can showcase and sell their APIs, and API consumers can find their desired APIs for their apps. From currency and finance APIs to geo and social media APIs, APILayer has a wide range of highly secure and reliable APIs.

Here are the key features of the APILayer API marketplace:

  • Consists of over 75 highly secure and scalable APIs
  • All APIs are REST APIs that are easy to use
  • APILayer constantly adds new APIs to the marketplace
  • All APIs in the marketplace come with a free plan, allowing users to try the API features before buying a paid plan.
  • APIs have detailed documentation, making the integration process easier for developers.
  • APILayer manages customer acquisition, memberships, key management, rate limits, and payment collection processes for API sellers.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What does an API access key mean?

An API access key is used as a unique identifier and secret token to authenticate and authorize a project or application sending the request. However, it doesn’t help with secure authorization for an individual user.

What are examples of API keys?

API keys are a combination of alphanumeric and special characters, such as arg-bcd125 and fght.htj-243.

How do I get an API access key?

Users usually need to create a developer account and provide the necessary information regarding their project to get an API access key.

Sign up for APILayer and try its impressive APIs today!

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