How To Store API Keys Securely

Store API Keys

API keys are a cornerstone of building a secure application. If you’re not familiar with API keys, they are simply identifiers that allow your application to access third-party APIs. For example, if your application needs to access one of Google’s APIs, it would need to use an API key from Google so that it can confirm the identity of the user. API keys are used in almost every industry for security reasons and to make sure that no unauthorized parties can access sensitive data or manipulate their way into your system. However, mishandling API keys can lead to security vulnerabilities. This article will guide you on how to securely store API keys to protect your applications and sensitive data.

How To Store API Keys Securely

API keys are usually stored as plain text. If an attacker can get access to your database, they can easily find the API key and use it to gain unauthorized access to sensitive data. This means that you need to store API Keys securely and prevent unauthorized users from accessing them. There are several ways in which you can do this:

1. Avoid Hardcoding Keys

Hardcoding API keys directly into your source code is a common pitfall. If your code repository is public or accessible to unauthorized individuals, it puts your keys at risk. Instead, use environment variables or configuration files. The best way to do this is by using a tool like Helm. It helps you manage Kubernetes configurations and secrets, including API keys.

2. Use Environment Variables

You can store API keys as environment variables rather than embedding them directly in your code. This adds an extra layer of security and allows you to manage keys independently of your codebase. Tools like .env can assist in loading environment variables from a file. They are safer than config files because they’re not included in version control systems (VCS).

3. Implement Key Encryption

Encrypt your API keys before storing them. This way, even if unauthorized access occurs, the intruder will encounter encrypted data, which is significantly harder to exploit. Encryption libraries like OpenSSL or libraries specific to your programming language can help achieve this. Don’t leave your keys in a text file. The best way to store API keys is in a database or other secure storage method.

4. Key Management Systems

Consider using a dedicated Key Management System (KMS) for enhanced security. Services like AWS Key Management Service or HashiCorp Vault provide a secure environment to store and manage sensitive information, including API keys. A KMS is an extra layer of security that sits between your application and the AWS service.

5. Restrict API Key Permissions

When generating API keys, only grant the necessary permissions. Avoid providing unnecessary access to sensitive data or actions. Regularly review and update permissions based on the evolving requirements of your application. For example, you should restrict API keys to only allow access to the resources they need. If a key needs access to an S3 bucket and no other AWS services set the permissions accordingly.

6. Audit and Monitor Key Usage

Implement a system to monitor API key usage actively. Regularly audit access logs to identify any unusual or unauthorized activity. This proactive approach helps detect and mitigate potential security threats promptly. You can also use API keys to monitor the behavior of your users proactively. For example, you could set a rule that if an API key is used in conjunction with another AWS service, it’s automatically disabled until you manually re-enable it.

7. Rotate Keys Regularly

Periodically change your API keys, even if there are no apparent security issues. This practice minimizes the window of vulnerability and ensures that compromised keys become obsolete. Automate key rotation processes when possible. If you use AWS, you can easily configure and manage your API keys with IAM. For example, you could set up a rule that automatically revokes a key if it hasn’t been used for 30 days.

8. Secure Storage Locations

Choose secure storage locations for your API keys. Avoid storing them in publicly accessible directories or databases without proper encryption. Utilize secure storage mechanisms provided by cloud services or dedicated servers. You can also use an encrypted file and store API Keys on your computer or in a safe location. This practice minimizes the window of vulnerability and ensures that compromised keys become obsolete.

Multi-Factor Authentication For Key Access

As you can see, there are several ways to ensure that your API keys are safe and secure. However, the most effective way to prevent unauthorized access is through multi-factor authentication.

1. Enable Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)

Implement MFA for accessing and managing API keys to add an additional layer of security beyond passwords. This ensures that even if credentials are compromised, an extra step of verification is required. Multi-factor authentication can be implemented in a variety of ways, including SMS messages and phone calls.

2. Use Time-Based One-Time Passwords (TOTP)

Integrate time-based one-time passwords for API key access. TOTP adds a time-sensitive element to the authentication process, making it more resistant to phishing attacks and unauthorized access attempts. This can be implemented using a smartphone app, such as Google Authenticator or Authy, which generates a unique time-sensitive code every 30 seconds.

3. Monitor MFA Events

Regularly monitor and log MFA events to detect any suspicious activity. Monitoring authentication attempts provides insights into potential security threats and helps in taking timely corrective actions. In addition to monitoring MFA events, organizations should also monitor failed logins. A large number of failed login attempts can be an indicator of a brute-force attack.

Containerized Environments And API Key Security

Containerized environments are becoming more popular, but they do not eliminate the need to secure your API keys. With containerized environments, you’ll need to take extra precautions when securing your API keys. The following are some tips for storing and managing them in this type of environment:

1. Secure Container Orchestration Platforms

When deploying applications in containerized environments, ensure the security of container orchestration platforms like Kubernetes. Leverage built-in security features and follow best practices to protect and store API keys in these environments. A secure container orchestration platform will help you manage your containers and keep them updated with any necessary patches or updates so that they can’t be exploited by hackers who might want access to them.

2. Implement Secrets Management for Containers

Utilize container-friendly secrets management tools to handle API keys within containerized applications securely. Avoid hardcoding keys in container images and instead fetch them dynamically during runtime. Secret management tools like Hashicorp’s Vault can help you secure your secrets in Kubernetes. They provide a centralized key-value store that allows you to manage sensitive information such as API keys, passwords, and more.

3. Regularly Update and Patch Containers

Stay updated with security patches for both container images and orchestration platforms. Regularly updating containers helps mitigate known vulnerabilities and enhances the overall security of API keys within containerized environments. You can automate updates by enabling a Docker feature called auto-update. It allows you to specify the Docker image version that your application uses and then automatically upgrades it when new versions become available.


In conclusion, we have seen that API keys can be a great tool for developers and businesses alike. However, it’s crucial that you implement proper security measures to ensure that your API keys are not compromised by hackers or unscrupulous individuals who wish harm upon your company. Securing API keys is crucial for safeguarding your applications and sensitive information. By following these best practices, you can minimize the risk of unauthorized access and potential security breaches. Stay vigilant, regularly update your security protocols, and adapt to evolving threats in the dynamic landscape of software development.

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