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Posted Jan 15, 2008

Oracle Security: The Big Picture

By DatabaseJournal.com Staff

Practical Oracle Security
By Josh Shaul, Aaron Ingram
Published by Elsevier
ISBN10: 1-59749-198-5
Published: Nov. 12, 2007
Dimensions 7 1/2 X 9 1/4 in
Pages: 288
Buy this book

Your Unauthorized Guide to Relational Database Security

This book will help the DBA to assess their current level of risk as well as their existing security posture. It will then provide practical, applicable knowledge to appropriately secure the Oracle database.

Chapter 1

Solutions in this Chapter:

  • A Brief History of Security Features in Oracle
  • The Regulatory Environment Driving Database Security
  • Major Data Theft Incidents
  • A Step-by-step Approach to Securing Oracle


A senior database manager at one of the world’s largest banks once told me that the best way to secure Oracle is to unplug it from the wall…and he is probably right. In fact, this holds true for nearly every networked application. Unfortunately, for many of us turning off the database is not an option; we must find another way to secure our systems. New technologies and services drive revenue for businesses, particularly those that provide a tailored experience to customers. These systems frequently require storing, processing, and offering access to personal information. No different are the systems that store corporate secrets or financial information. Much of the data they store is extremely sensitive, but it all needs to be readily and easily accessible nonetheless. This creates a significant data security challenge, one we will address in detail throughout this volume.

This book is designed to help you establish a practical security program for Oracle databases. We will create a means for measuring and assessing the security of your databases, and give you tools to create a security scorecard for each of your Oracle databases. This is not a Database Administrator (DBA) handbook—far from it. Instead, we are writing to the entire database security community, which includes DBAs, but also includes Information Technology (IT) security staff, auditors, and even the Chief Information Security Officer (CISO).

Oracle is by far the most widely deployed database in the world. It is a central component of critical systems across nearly every major industry that thrives today. In the financial, medical, telecom, infrastructure, government, and even the military, the databases and the data within them are the business. Over the last several years, databases have become a frequent target of cyber attacks. At first, these attacks were primarily intended to cause disruptions in business and gain notoriety among the hacker community. This has changed dramatically with database attacks increasingly focused on extracting the sensitive and valuable information from systems in an attempt at monetary gains by the attacker. Stealing personal information for use in identity theft, stealing credit card numbers to make purchases at will, stealing corporate secrets to take back the competitors edge, these are today’s drivers behind attacks on databases. Because of Oracle’s dominance in the marketplace, many of these attacks have been focused on Oracle systems. Oracle has been an unwilling conspirator in these attacks, having built a system riddled with vulnerabilities for the attackers to go after. At the same time, Oracle has built the most complete suite of security features in any commercial database. This book will show you how to properly use these features to ensure your databases remain available and secure in a diverse and rapidly changing environment.

A Brief History of Security Features in Oracle

The Oracle database was born out of a US intelligence community project, called Project Oracle, run by the Central Intelligence Agency. Given the initial customer, security was a serious concern from day one. If you go back to the initial release of Oracle from 1979 (actually dubbed version 2) the beginnings of today’s security system were already present. Those were the days when databases were housed in physically protected secure rooms, with no outside or network access. At the time, there was no means to access Oracle without being on the server itself. The concern about an outside attacker breaching the system was hardly even considered; however, the threat from an insider was a present concern. It is quite likely that this threat brought about some components of the often confusing and misleading error message system that remains in use today. For example, try selecting from a table or view that exists in Oracle that you do not have permissions to access. Oracle will respond with the following:

C:\>sqlplus scott/tiger

SQL*Plus: Release - Production on Sat Sep 15 13:18:52 2007
Copyright (c) 1982, 2005, Oracle.  All rights reserved.

Connected to:
Oracle Database 10g Enterprise Edition Release - Production
With the Partitioning, OLAP and Data Mining options

SQL> select * from sys.user$;
select * from sys.user$;
ERROR at line 1:
ORA-00942: table or view does not exist

Why tell the user that the object they requested does not exist, rather then provide a message telling them they do not have the proper permissions? It’s simple. If a user does not have rights on an object, that user has no reason to know that the object exists. Handing out any more information than is absolutely necessary has never been good for security, regardless of what is being secured.

Passwords were present in version 2 as well, but the password management system was extremely basic. Overall, there was a minimal need for security when Oracle first got started, but underpinnings were put in place. As the technology world began to change, and the protections offered by physically securing the servers were no longer sufficient, Oracle changed as well and began to implement a complex array of increasingly sophisticated security features.

Privilege Controls

At first, controls on user rights and privileges were nearly non-existent. Within a few years, Oracle introduced the concept of roles. Three roles were rigidly defined: CONNECT, RESOURCE, and DBA. Users could be assigned roles, but these roles could not be modified, nor could custom roles be created. All privileges were assigned directly to the roles, never to users. This continued until version 6 of the database was released, when Oracle introduced the capability to grant privileges to users. This was a significant improvement in the security system, allowing administrators to have much more granular control in giving out access to data on an as-needed basis. The CONNECT, RESOURCE, and DBA roles remained statically defined until version 7 of Oracle was released and the concept of user-defined roles was introduced. User-defined roles revolutionized the privilege control system in Oracle, allowing for efficient and flexible management of permissions by allowing them to be grouped together and assigned or removed in bulk. The Oracle7 role system remains in use today and will likely not be changed with the future release of Oracle11g. We’ll cover using roles and privileges in detail in Chapter 4.

One more major development in the privilege control system came in Oracle8i: invoker rights procedures. Stored procedures have been around for quite some time, and were commonly used as they are today, to group complex functionality into a single procedure and then offer easy access through a simple interface. For a long time, all procedures were run with definer rights. This means that when a procedure is called, it runs at the privilege level of the definer (the user who owns the procedure), often the DBA. Invoker rights procedures are different. They run at the privilege level of the invoker (the user who ran the procedure). This offers flexibility to database developers who can now create procedures that access data and database functions without the worry of a user getting access to data they should never see.


Until version 5 of the database, Oracle offered no networking features. Database access was only permitted by directly connecting from the host operating system (OS). This required users to be able to access the server on which Oracle ran, making it impossible to implement any kind of distributed computing system. In version 5, SQL*Net 1.0 was introduced and with it came a dramatic change in how Oracle was used and how it was secured. It was no longer necessary to access the host OS to log in to the database; all that was needed was a network connection and some client software and the database could be accessed remotely. The introduction of SQL*Net had an important side effect. Users could now interact directly and exclusively with Oracle’s immature user authentication system and could completely bypass the mature authentication features offered by the database host OS.

Oracle Advanced Networking Option

The Oracle Advanced Networking Option (ANO) was released with version 7.3 of the database in 1996. ANO was the first Oracle product to offer strong security for a networked database; its two primary features were network security and single sign-on.

Network Security

In Oracle’s terms, network security means both confidentiality and integrity protection. The confidentiality part ensures that nobody can read the data as it crosses the network, while the integrity protection part ensures that nobody can change the data as it moves. Confidentiality was implemented using the symmetric key encryption algorithms Ron’s Code 4 (RC4) and Data Encryption Standard (DES). The integrity protection was implemented with a cryptographic hash or message digest function called Message Digest 5 (MD5). Oracle chose strong algorithms and made attacks against the data as it traverses the network very difficult to execute.


ANO was released in 1996 during the dark days when the US government held tightly to export controls on encryption products. This forced Oracle to offer two versions of ANO, one for US domestic use only and another for export. The export version was limited to the use of 40-bit encryption keys for both RC4 and DES, significantly watering down the strength of each encryption algorithm. Domestic versions used 56-bit DES and allowed for up to 128-bit RC4. In the years since, these export controls have been largely removed and Oracle now offers only one version of the network security product, now called the Advanced Security Option.

Single Sign-on

In an attempt to simplify password management for organizations, Oracle began to integrate with third-party providers of single sign-on (SSO) authentication systems. The intention was to integrate Oracle databases into enterprise SSO systems, allowing users to set a single strong password in one place, and then use the same account to access all systems. This allowed users to remember only one password, and it allowed administrators to force the use of strong passwords on their users. Furthermore, SSO makes user provisioning and password management simple, as all credentials are managed centrally. In the initial release, Oracle offered support for a number of SSO systems, including Kerberos, CyberSAFE, SecurID, Biometric, and DCE GSSAPI.

The i in Oracle8i

Oracle ushered in the Internet era with the release of Oracle8i in early 1999. Targeted at the eCommerce marketplace in the heat of the .com boom, Oracle had the right product at the right time to claim an enormous share of the online retail market. Touted as a platform for developing Internet applications, Oracle8i was built to face the Internet and store sensitive data. This represented a shift in how and where databases were used. Hackers started finding databases directly accessible from the Internet. Oracle hacking went mainstream.

Network security continued to be a strong suit for Oracle. They renamed SQL*Net as Net8 and renamed the Advanced Networking Option to Oracle Advanced Security (OAS). Major enhancements were made to both the network security and single sign-on components of OAS. Oracle added support for Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) (network authentication, encryption, and integrity protection) and Remote Authentication Dial-in User Service (RADIUS) (centralized user authentication). Both are standards-based systems that had been publicly reviewed, offering assurance to companies who didn’t want to rely on Oracle alone to attest to the effectiveness of their security protocols. In the releases since 8i, Oracle has continued to offer enhancements and upgrades to the OAS product.


Oracle has offered auditing features in the database since very early on. Capabilities were provided to audit log-ins, object access, and database actions (defined as anything that makes a change to a database object, such as CREATE TABLE or ALTER DATABASE). Each event would be captured and labeled as successful or failed. Early versions of Oracle auditing were somewhat limited. Database actions could only be audited by role (CONNECT, RESOURCE, and DBA), not by individual user. SYSDBA activities could not be audited at all. Audit data was stored inside the database in the SYS.AUD$ table, and needed to be periodically truncated by the DBA. However, Oracle has supported auditing of access to SYS.AUD$ from the beginning.

With the Oracle7 release, database triggers were introduced. This new functionality was useful in many areas, audit in particular. The built-in Oracle auditing system records only those events that have occurred; it does not record before and after values for data changes. Triggers could be used to do just that, triggering on an update or delete to capture the old value before replacing or removing it. While a trigger-based audit system had to be implemented manually, it was a useful and powerful addition to the native auditing capabilities of the database.

Oracle7 also brought about the capability to write audit data directly to a flat file instead of into the database. This provided administrators with needed flexibility and allowed for tighter access controls on the audit data. The restrictions on database action auditing were lifted, allowing auditing by an individual user instead of by role.

Oracle8 came with its own set of improvements to the audit system. Things got much more granular with the capability to enable auditing at the object, schema, and system level. Oracle also added several views to allow for simpler review and analysis of the stored audit data.

Fine Grained Auditing

Fine Grained Auditing (FGA) was first introduced with Oracle9i. A major improvement in Oracle’s auditing capability, the first release of FGA focused on auditing of SELECT statements. Previously, Oracle auditing could record that a user had read from a table or view with a SELECT statement. While it was possible to know that a SELECT statement was issued and who issued it, it was not possible to determine what data was selected. FGA was designed to collect this information. Each event logged by FGA detailed the user, date/time, schema, table, columns accessed, the exact SQL statement issued including bind variables, and a system change number. This was a level of detail never before seen in a database auditing system, allowing for complete recreation of each audited event. By logging the exact SQL statement executed and the system change number, it was possible to determine exactly what data had been returned by the query. A DBA could use a flashback query to effectively restore the database to the point in time when the query was first executed and then run it again. The results would be the same, proving what data had been read from the system.

Oracle took this a step further by allowing administrators to audit access to individual rows by evaluating the row against a set of conditions supplied when auditing was configured. This allowed for auditing access to sensitive data only. The DVA could set up a column to indicate sensitivity, and then configure the audit system to capture access only to the rows labeled sensitive. This powerful feature had only one major shortcoming; it worked for SELECT only. There was no granular auditing of the Data Manipulation Language (DML) commands INSERT, UPDATE, or DELETE.

With the release of Oracle10g came another round of major improvements to the built-in auditing systems. FGA was enhanced with the capability to audit DML statements, providing the same level of detail for INSERT, UPDATE, and DELETE statements as had previously been supplied only for SELECT. The improvements in 10g were not limited to FGA, in fact, the entire audit system was overhauled to make all audit capabilities more granular and FGA-like. By setting the audit_trail parameter to db_extended, standard Oracle audit will capture both the exact SQL text executed, along with the values for any bind variables used for any query run against the database. Oracle DBAs now have a powerful mechanism to track exactly what their users are doing in the database.

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