Dizzy Keys: Why API Key Rotation Matters

If you’re building software in 2023 you’re using third parties, whether that be third party libraries imported via a package manager, or infrastructure provided by cloud hosting providers like AWS, and maybe your third parties are talking to your third parties, with tools that link up your code, infrastructure, and additional tooling with a nice bow. And the chances are you’re doing all of this through developer API keys. 

If you take a look at some of the recent security breaches like Sumo Logic and JumpCloud, you’ll see a familiar thread emerging, the risk around API keys and how to manage it. Today I’ll be showing you how to manage the risk of API keys, what good API key hygiene looks like and what to do if you are worried one of your keys has hit GitHub.

What Are API Keys?

At their core, API keys are unique identifiers assigned to applications or users. They act like “secret handshakes”, allowing the system to recognize who is requesting access and to verify whether that request should be granted. This mechanism is crucial, especially in environments where data sharing and integration are pervasive.

However, the efficiency and utility of API keys come with inherent vulnerabilities. Their very nature as access enablers makes them attractive targets for attackers, providing them with both access and an easy-to-read developer documentation on how to breach your systems and exfiltrate your data.

If an API key is compromised, it can lead to unauthorized access to sensitive data, potentially causing significant security breaches. 

The use of API keys also reflects the evolving landscape of digital security, the role of API keys becomes even more critical. They are not just tools for seamless integration but are also pivotal in maintaining the integrity and confidentiality of digital systems.

The Alarming Trend of API Key Breaches

The incidents involving Sumo Logic and JumpCloud are part of a concerning pattern in the cybersecurity landscape, where API key breaches are becoming more common. These breaches are not just technical glitches; they represent a significant threat to both corporate security and user privacy.

There were also two notable examples at Twitter. In 2018, Twitter’s internal security breach involving API keys highlighted the need for robust internal security protocols to protect user data. This incident emphasized the vulnerability of internal systems to external threats when API keys are not securely managed.

More recently, cybersecurity firm CloudSEK uncovered a different kind of vulnerability: 3,207 mobile apps were found to be inadvertently exposing Twitter API keys. This discovery pointed to a widespread issue in the way third-party app developers manage and secure their API keys. The lapse on the part of these external applications emphasized the risks associated with inadequate protection of API keys by third parties, underlining the importance of secure API key practices among developers outside the primary service provider.

Both incidents – Twitter’s 2018 breach and CloudSEK’s recent discovery – underscore the overarching importance of comprehensive API key security and management. Whether it’s securing internal systems or ensuring that third-party developers adhere to stringent security standards, these examples highlight the critical need for vigilant API key management across the digital landscape.

Why I Advocate for Regular API Key Rotation

API key rotation is a practice I cannot stress enough. It involves periodically replacing old keys with new ones, a simple yet effective way to limit the damage if a key is compromised. Think of it as renewing the locks on your doors regularly – it’s a proactive measure to ensure security.

Ideally this should be as seamless as possible on a schedule. With keys being deactivated and re-generated every few months, though this could be longer or shorter depending on the key and your risk appetite. Often this can be done automatically via the third party or using scripts. With AWS KMS keys there is an opt-in for them to be rotated every year.

Responding to Breaches: My Immediate Actions

Not every breach is malicious and often API keys breaches can be accidental with a developer committing it to a public version control, or a secret key being left in some javascript source code. 

Whether or not a breach is accidental or malicious, whenever a breach occurs, time is of the essence. I immediately deactivate the compromised API key to cut off any unauthorized access. Then, generating and implementing a new key is crucial to maintain service continuity and secure the account.

Best Practices for API Key Management

  1. Regular Rotation: I advocate for a schedule of regular key rotation – it’s a critical routine in my security playbook.
  2. Scope Limitation: I always limit the scope of each key, granting only the necessary access required for functionality.
  3. Vigilant Monitoring: I continuously monitor key usage for any unusual patterns and set up alerts for anomalies.
  4. Secure Storage: Proper storage of API keys is non-negotiable. I avoid common mistakes like hardcoding them in applications or inadvertently exposing them in public repositories.


The Bottom Line

The increasing incidents of API key breaches underscore the critical need for robust API key security and management. By understanding the risks, implementing regular key rotation, and adhering to best practices, we can significantly enhance our digital defenses. It’s essential for both individuals and organizations to stay vigilant and proactive in protecting their digital assets in this ever-evolving cybersecurity landscape.


About Traceable

Traceable is the industry’s leading API Security company helping organizations achieve API visibility and attack protection in a cloud-first, API-driven world. Traceable is the only intelligent and context-aware solution that powers complete API security – API discovery and posture management, API security testing, attack detection and threat hunting, and attack protection anywhere your APIs live. Traceable enables organizations to minimize risk and maximize the value that APIs bring their customers. To learn more about how API security can help your business, book a demo with a security expert.