Guide To API Gateway Security Best Practices

March 18, 2024

Microservices and APIs are becoming a staple of web applications and software development. More and more applications are shifting from a monolithic architecture to more agile and dynamic microservices.

This shift turns a large piece of software into smaller pieces of components, there is a need for a central system for coordination. This is where API gateways come into play. An API gateway is responsible for coordinating, routing, load balancing, and securing the communication between an end user and the services they want to access.

As API gateways become increasingly popular, knowing how to secure those systems is essential. Even API gateways from industry leaders can have security flaws. For example, AWS’ API gateway was found to be vulnerable to issues such as HTTP request-smuggling. This leaves the API gateway open for exploitation by attackers, which would allow them to make unauthenticated requests to internal APIs and microservices, bypassing the gateway’s security.

This article will explore the top eight API gateway security best practices organizations can use to secure their resources. These best practices range from strategies and techniques to architectural styles that help protect your organization from threats.

Summary of key API gateway security best practices

The table below summarizes the eight API gateway security best practices this article will explore in more detail.

Best Practice Description
Securely authenticate users Implement secure ways to authenticate users
Avoid unauthorized access Make sure the gateway properly authorizes users and avoids unauthorized access and issues
Encrypt traffic Use SSL/TLS encryption to prevent man-in-the-middle (MitM) attacks
Enforce rate limiting Protect endpoints from brute-forcing and DoS
Validate and sanitize input Sanitize user-supplied data to prevent injections and other vulnerabilities
Log and monitor system traffic Make sure to log and monitor the API activity for malicious detection in real-time
Harden your apps and infrastructure Secure the gateway infrastructure with secure hardening practices
Write and publish quality API documentation Make sure to document all API endpoints and any changes to them.

The top eight API gateway security best practices

The eight API gateway security best practices below can help organizations improve their overall security posture and mitigate the risks associated with microservices and API gateways.

#1 Securely authenticate users

Since API gateways provide the entry point to microservices, gateways should provide the authentication to those services to save time in network operations and latency.

The three most common authentication mechanisms for API gateways are the same as those used in standard API deployments:

API keys can supplement these techniques. However, according to NIST 800-204, using API keys as an authentication method should be avoided when accessing sensitive data. It is easy for API keys to get leaked, stolen by hackers, or generally mishandled, especially if the API gateway has vulnerabilities that allow an attacker to do so.

Regardless of the authentication mechanism (e.g., stateless or stateful, JWT, OAuth, etc.), teams must implement it securely. For example, in using JWTs, one of the most popular authentication methods for APIs, the token must expire as soon as possible after determining the possible duration of the session created. Also, the secret used to sign the JWTs must be stored securely and not hardcoded in source code. Instead, developers can use env files, or secrets management tools like Hashicorp or Doppler.

For reference, here is an example of code that hardcodes a JWT secret.

import jwt
from flask import Flask, request, jsonify
import datetime

app = Flask(__name__)

# JWT secret
JWT_SECRET = 'mysecretkey'

@app.route('/protected', methods=['GET'])
def protected():
	# Get the JWT token from the request headers
	token = request.headers.get('Authorization')
	if not token:
    	return jsonify({'message': 'Token is missing'}), 401
    	# Verify and decode the token using the hardcoded secret
    	payload = jwt.decode(token, JWT_SECRET, algorithms=['HS256'])
    	user_id = payload['user_id']
    	return jsonify({'message': f'Welcome, user {user_id}!'})
	except jwt.ExpiredSignatureError:
    	return jsonify({'message': 'Token has expired'}), 401
	except jwt.InvalidTokenError:
    	return jsonify({'message': 'Invalid token'}), 401

if __name__ == '__main__':

#2 Avoid unauthorized access

Like authentication, authorization to microservices should be provisioned through the API gateway. The gateway should be responsible for correctly deciding which authenticated user has access to the requested microservices and forwarding the requests to those microservices.

It is possible to create a network of API gateways with a hierarchical structure when necessary. An initial API gateway can forward a request for access to a microservice to an API gateway closer to that microservice (often called a micro gateway). Then, the micro gateway can decide on the permission to access the microservice. The initial API gateway provides general access, while the secondary gateway gets a more detailed "look" at the request based on the authorization method used. This prevents a single point of failure compared to using one API gateway.

A hierarchical structure of AIP gateway, micro gateways, and microservices.

No matter what architectural style is followed regarding the authorization, it is important not to allow the users to bypass the "wall" of an API gateway.

Bypassing an API gateway to reach a microservice directly.

This happens when an attacker discovers a microservice exposed to the internet (or when an attacker positions themselves within the internal network) and makes direct unauthenticated calls to it before forwarding the request through the gateway, similar to how attackers bypass Cloudflare WAF protection.

API gateways should provide authorization for all microservices and be the first step of each user request. Teams can implement mutual authentication between the request source and the microservice to avoid anonymous, unauthenticated direct calls to microservices.


#3 Encrypt traffic

As all things connected to the Internet should be secured by strong cryptographic protocols for encrypting communication, an API gateway should not be an exception. The use of SSL/TLS is a fundamental part of web security, hence also API security.

The Client-to-API gateway and the API gateway-to-service communication should use SSL/TLS encryption to prevent Man-in-the-middle attacks on both external and internal traffic.

#4 Enforce rate limiting

To maintain the availability and stability of the gateway, throttling mechanisms must be implemented.

To implement the rate-limiting mechanisms, one should consider the requirements and specifications of the infrastructure and the application that runs on that infrastructure. The amount of API and microservice requests allowed should be based on the context of the request itself.

For example, a vast number of requests on the payment endpoint of an e-shop microservice should be handled differently than a large number of requests on its homepage. The first case could be an attempt of DoS, race condition, fuzzing, etc., while the second could be a sudden burst of activity by one or different sources.

This also requires a sense of contextual behavior and contextual categorization of the API endpoints from the defender’s point of view. AI and machine-learning models that can quickly identify malicious behaviors based on context typically enable this functionality.

Lastly, mechanisms should also be based on session characteristics such as the session key and IP address.

#5 Validate and sanitize input

“Never trust user input” is a fundamental security principle. Sanitizing user input helps enforce this principle in practice. While AI is getting better and better at recognizing patterns of malicious users, its methods are never bulletproof. Thus, there is a need for human intervention to actively make sure that no user should be trusted when handling sensitive operations by developing filters and sanitizing mechanisms in the source code.

Sanitizing sensitive characters such as double quotes, single quotes, brackets, etc., can prevent simple yet dangerous vulnerabilities such as SQL injections (SQLi), cross-site scripting (XSS), etc. An input filter should first occur in a microservice's entry point, i.e., at the API gateway level.

Also, preventing user input on decision-making input fields used by the backend system is an important step. For example, a popular API product that offered IP source data was utilizing an API gateway for load-balancing requests to the backend API. This API gateway’s rate-limit mechanism could be bypassed by changing the value of a header to a seemingly “innocent” value, enabling attackers to use the premium version of the product free of charge. Hence, it is essential to also consider the logical aspect of an operation based on a field that attackers could change and abuse.


#6 Log and monitor system traffic and events

Even if all other security measures have been taken, an organization needs to log and monitor the traffic of its systems. In the case of API gateways, securely monitoring both the gateway and the microservices behind it should be utilized to catch anomalous activity early on.

Real-time traffic analysis and response help prevent threats on the spot. Threats such as injection attacks, denial of service (DoS) attacks, crashes, and errors must be logged for further inspection and archive tracking. The traffic analysis and any behavioral analysis by intrusion detection systems (IDS) should be based on a normal baseline behavior that a normal user would have.

The results of all these monitoring practices should be aggregated on a centralized dashboard, where they can be observed so humans can take action when necessary.

#7 Harden your apps and infrastructure

Effective API gateway security includes hardening associated infrastructure and applications. Key infrastructure and system hardening techniques that organizations should implement include:

  • Keeping software up-to-date with the latest patches
  • Set up proper firewall rules
  • Encrypt local storage
  • Remove unnecessary libraries
  • Using strong passwords for system users

These methods either try to prevent cyber attacks from reaching the gateway or minimize the damage done by attackers, once they can grasp leverage off the system.

#8 Write and publish quality API documentation

Developers, users, and business partners should have a reference point for the API gateway and microservices usage. One can achieve this by maintaining up-to-date documentation for all parties needing it.

One may think this isn’t a security best practice, as it does not directly prevent attacks. However, understanding how an API gateway operates from a developer's point of view is essential to add new functionality and integrate new features securely. Also, through complete API documentation, a security engineer can detect security issues more easily by viewing the requirements for each request.

Dynamic Open API specification generation tools help developers and organizations go through the process of documenting APIs and API gateways by generating the necessary information required for users and developers, as well as catching any security issues.



API gateways are a powerful tool organizations can use to make their API deployments more efficient. As microservices and API gateways continue to grow in popularity, it becomes increasingly important and urgent for organizations to mitigate API gateway security risks. By leveraging this article's eight API gateway security best practices, teams can reduce risk and improve their overall security posture.

Contact Impart Security at for more API security tips and best practices and be sure to follow us on LinkedIn for the latest product news and updates.

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