Getting the Keys to the Kingdom: SQL Injection

By Zack Sanders

Director of Security –

SQL injection is one of the most well-known vulnerabilities in web application security. Because so many web sites today are database driven, an SQL injection vulnerability puts the entire application and its users at risk. The purpose of this article is to explain what SQL injection is, show how easily it can be exploited, and discuss what steps you can take to make sure your site is secure from this devastating attack vector.

What is SQL injection?

SQL injection is performed by including portions of SQL statements in a web form entry field in an attempt to get the web site to pass a newly formed malicious SQL command to the database. The vulnerability happens when user input is either incorrectly filtered or user input is not strongly typed and unexpectedly executed. SQL commands are thus injected from the web form into the database of an application (like queries) to change the database content or dump the database information like credit card or passwords to the attacker. Average websites can experience 100’s of SQL injection attempts per hour from automated bots scouring the Internet.

How do attackers discover it?

When searching for SQL injection, an attacker is looking for an application that behaves differently based on varying inputs to a form. For example, a vulnerable web form might accept expected content just fine, but if SQL characters are inputted, a system-level SQL error is generated saying something like, “There is an error in your MySQL syntax.” This tells the attacker that the SQL code is being interpreted, even though it is incorrect. This indicates that the application is vulnerable.

How is a site that is vulnerable exploited?

Once an application is deemed vulnerable, an attacker will try using an automated injection tool to glean information about the database. Structure data like the information schema, the version of SQL being run, and table names are all trivial to gather. Once the structure is defined and understood, custom SQL statements can be written to download data from interesting tables like, “users”, “customers”, “payments”, etc. Here is a screenshot from a recent client of mine whose site was vulnerable. These are just a few of the columns from the “users” table.

* Names, email addresses, partial passwords, usernames, and addresses are blocked out.

What happens next?

With this level of access, the sky is the limit. Here are a few things an attacker might do:

1) Take all of the hashed passwords and run them against a rainbow table for matches. This is why long passwords are so important. Even though hashing is a one-way algorithm for encryption, the hashes for short and common passwords are all known and can easily be looked up reversely. An attacker might then use the passwords, along with email addresses, to compromise other accounts owned by those users.

2) Change the super administrator flag for a user they know the password for, and log in to gain further access. A common goal is to get to a file upload interface so that a script can be uploaded to the server that would give an attacker remote control.

3) Drop the entire database purely to wreak havoc.

How do you protect your site from SQL injection?

ALL GET and POST requests involving the database need to be filtered and analyzed before being run. This includes actions like:

1) Stripping away SQL characters. In MySQL, this would be the mysql_real_escape_string() function.

2) Analyze for expected input. Should the entry only be a number 1-50? Check to make sure it is a positive number, non-zero, and no more than two characters.

3) Have strong database permissions. Different database users should be created with only needed permissions for their function. For example, don’t use the root MySQL user to connect your web application to your database.

4) Hire an expert to assess your web application. The cost of performing this type of health check is miniscule compared to the cost of being exploited.

5) Install an intrusion protection system like NetGladiator that looks for SQL characters in URL’s.

The keys to the kingdom

Hopefully you can now see the danger of SQL injection. The level of control and access coupled with the ease of discovery and exploitation make it extremely problematic. The good news is, putting basic protections in place is relatively easy.

Contact us today if you want help securing your web application!

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