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What is OpenID Connect (OIDC)?

What is OpenID Connect (OIDC)?

John Natale
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Key Takeaways

OpenID Connect is a protocol for authenticating and authorizing users for APIs. It enables single sign-on, eliminating multiple logins, while offering benefits such as interoperability, extensibility, and industry adoption. These factors make OpenID Connect a widely-used standard for API security, as part of a comprehensive strategy and toolset designed to take on modern API threats.

OpenID Connect is an open-standard protocol that allows users to authenticate and authorize themselves across multiple websites, applications, and APIs using their existing accounts. The protocol is built upon the OAuth 2.0 framework and provides a secure and standardized way for users to access their personal information and interact with various online services.

OpenID Connect provides single sign-on (SSO) functionality at its core. This means that users only need to authenticate themselves once with their preferred identity provider (IdP) and can then access multiple applications without having to enter additional login credentials. This simplifies the user experience and removes the hassle of remembering multiple usernames and passwords.

How Does OpenID Connect Work?

The protocol works by establishing a trust relationship between the IdP and the relying party (the application or website that wants to authenticate the user).

  • When a user attempts to access a relying party, they are redirected to their chosen identity provider, where they authenticate themselves.
  • Once authenticated, the identity provider generates an ID Token, which contains information about the user, such as their unique identifier and any requested claims.
  • This ID token is then securely transmitted back to the relying party, which can use it to verify the user’s identity and grant them access to the requested resources.

OpenID Connect also provides a method for authorizing access to user data. The relying party can ask for specific permissions to access certain user information, such as their email address or profile picture. These permissions are requested through the use of OAuth 2.0 scopes, and the user is shown a consent screen to allow or deny the requested permissions.

How Does OpenID Connect Help with API Security?

OpenID Connect plays a critical role in API security by offering a standardized and secure method for authenticating and authorizing users who access APIs. Why is this crucial? APIs facilitate the ongoing exchange of an organization’s most sensitive data, such as customer records. This proximity to valuable data makes APIs attractive to attackers and susceptible to attacks, with 92% of enterprises reporting at least one API security incident.

The stakes are high. Compromising even a single API can lead to the theft of millions of records. Exposed or misconfigured APIs are common and easily exploitable, remaining not only unprotected but also often unseen and unmanaged. This includes highly vulnerable shadow APIs and zombie APIs.

Here are a few reasons why OpenID Connect is important for APIs and API security:

  1. Authentication: OpenID Connect allows APIs to authenticate users securely and efficiently. By using this protocol, APIs can rely on trusted identity providers to authenticate users, removing the need for the API itself to handle and store sensitive user credentials. This significantly reduces the risk of credential theft and improves overall security.
  2. SSO: OpenID Connect enables SSO functionality, allowing users to authenticate themselves only once with their chosen Identity Provider and then access multiple APIs without needing additional login credentials. This simplified user experience reduces the burden of managing multiple sets of credentials, while also guaranteeing consistent authentication across different APIs.
  3. Authorization: OpenID Connect offers a mechanism for APIs to authorize access to protected resources. By using OAuth 2.0 scopes, APIs can request specific permissions from the IdP. This ensures that only authorized users can access sensitive data or perform certain actions. This granular access control enhances API security by preventing unauthorized access to resources.
  4. Secure Token Exchange: OpenID Connect uses JSON Web Tokens (JWTs) to securely transmit authentication and authorization information. These digitally signed tokens can be encrypted, which ensures the integrity and confidentiality of their data. APIs can validate and verify these tokens to confirm the user’s authenticity and permissions, reducing the risk of token tampering or impersonation attacks.
  5. Interoperability: OpenID Connect is designed with high interoperability in mind, enabling APIs to integrate seamlessly with different identity providers. This ensures that APIs can support a wide range of authentication mechanisms and work with various identity providers, offering flexibility for both developers and users. Additionally, it promotes consistency and standardization in API security practices.
  6. Extensibility: OpenID Connect is an extensible framework that allows APIs to define custom claims and scopes to meet their unique security requirements. This flexibility enables APIs to tailor the authentication and authorization process to their specific needs, making sure that the appropriate level of security is maintained while accommodating specific business requirements.
  7. Industry Adoption: OpenID Connect has gained significant industry adoption and support, making it a widely recognized and trusted standard for API security. This widespread acceptance ensures that APIs implementing OpenID Connect can integrate seamlessly with existing IdPs and take advantage of the robust security features provided by the protocol.

Bringing it All Together: OpenID Connect and Securing APIs

In conclusion, OpenID Connect is a powerful and versatile protocol that enables secure authentication and authorization across multiple websites, applications, and APIs. OpenID Connect is important for API security as it provides a standardized and secure framework for authentication, authorization, and SSO. By leveraging trusted IdPs, secure token exchange, and interoperability, OpenID Connect enhances API security, simplifies user authentication, and promotes consistent and standardized security practices across different APIs.

Where can I learn more about API security?

Today’s threat landscape calls for a complete API security platform encompassing four critical areas: API discovery, posture management, runtime protection, and API security testing. If you’re interested in learning more about the specific forms of visibility and controls needed to fully secure your organization’s APIs, check out our API Security Buyer’s Guide.

John Natale

John Natale leads content marketing at Noname Security.

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