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17. 08. 2014. api * featured * security

Authentication techniques for REST API

A REST API should be stateless. This means no sessions - for accessing protected content the credentials need to be sent with each request.

There are various approaches to storing and sending the credentials suitable for different applications.

API keys

The safest way for securing an API is to securely generate and distribute API key/secret pair, which is then stored in a file on the client machine, to which only the owner has the read access. The client is authenticated on every request by including the key/secret in the request header.

Since API secret is a hash (it consists of a number of randomly generated characters, alpha numeric + special signs) it is resistant to dictionary attacks (unlike some passwords); also usually it is significantly longer and with more entropy than most passwords are, making the brute force attacks more costly.

( -> more on dictionary attacks in a post on Password attacks )
( -> more about secure hash generation in a post on Hashing and Encryption )

They are also more convenient for regular rotation or resetting. Having the API secret exposed (for example in the code on the production machine) does not compromise the account the way the exposing the master credentials would.

If the secret is not rehashed on the server, it is a speed benefit compared to the username/password access.

This approach is best for API intended for inter-application communication. It is less convenient for single page applications.


Username & password

The pair needs to be sent with each request either as parameters or in a header, so it means that it needs to be stored in the client in cleartext (so that the user does not have to enter it each time). When the password is being authenticated on the server, it goes through hashing that is deliberately little slower, in order to mitigate the brute force attacks.

Authentication token

This approach combines API keys and username/password authentication. The user is asked for his credentials only on a first request, and in the response he is given his authentication token, which is used in every subsequent request for authentication.

The authentication token alone, if generated uniquely, is enough to identify the user in the db, but this can leave the system vulnerable to timing attacks.

( -> more on timing attacks in a post on Password attacks )

Safer alternative is to send the token in combination with a user key. Sending a table primary key is not a good idea, because it is too revealing, and it also tends to  be sequential. It is much better to use email, UUID or some other unique value.

The protection against the timing attacks is achieved by retrieveing the user  from the db and then safe comparing of the stored token against the one from the request.

Security concerns

Apart from the secure comparison there are also some other security concerns when using this technique.

  • HTTPS should always be used when sending credentials; this is also valid for other approaches mentioned in this post.
  • the token must be a cryptographic strength one-time random token; this is addressed by Devise.friendly_token, if Devise gem is used.
  • storing hashed tokens
  • expiring the tokens

Hashing the token before storing it in the database is the safest option. It prevents the attacker that has acquired the database to also gain instant access to all the users, but it also adds some extra complexity to the application. However, storing a token in cleartext in client application / browser can not be avoided.

Tokens unlike passwords can easily be renewed/expired without much UX cost. This provides an option to periodically manually renew some or all tokens, or automatically on a regular basis.

Renewing a token on sign in would cause the sign out of any other client signed in with the same account. This could be fixed by having multiple tokens, one per client.

Also, for long lasting sessions, for example when a user is signed in a browser tab that is never closed and the user never signs out, the token would never be renewed.

The tokens can automatically expire after certain time (14 days for example). After the token expires, the user needs to sign in again in order for the new token to be generated.




  • blog: Nonce (09-04-2003)

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