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Posted March 25, 2014

6 Steps for Fighting SQL Injection

By Frank Ohlhorst

The news has been flooded with revelations about major security breaches involving retailers such as Target, Michaels and Niemen Marcus and hotel chains such as Hilton and Marriot. Even more shocking than hackers' successful attacks on these prominent companies is the fact that most of the victims have yet to figure out exactly how the breaches occurred and the full extent of the damage incurred.

It is likely that SQL injection was involved in at least some of these breaches. For more than 10 years, attackers have broken into countless databases using SQL injection to steal information such as account data and transaction details.

SQL injection attacks are not a new phenomenon, and security professionals are more than capable of protecting against them. However, according to Neira Jones, former head of payment security for Barclaycard, some 97 percent of data breaches worldwide still involve SQL injection at some point, which makes SQL injection just about the top database security issue. That begs a question: Why are SQL injection attacks still so effective?

It’s not for lack of trying. Security professionals are well aware of the threats posed by SQL injection - flummoxed by the rapid evolution of the latest attacks. What’s more, most attacks leverage zero day vulnerabilities – so the attack vectors have not been seen before and do not exhibit telltale signs of an intrusion. This poses problems for most security professionals, especially those that rely on signature-based security technologies to detect and prevent attacks.

Battling SQL injection must take a different approach, one that identifies what is normal access and what falls out of the norm - all without creating false positives for attacks and at the same time not missing an attack in progress.

Products using this type of an approach are emerging, including DB Networks' SQL Injection management solution, which was recently reviewed on Enterprise Networking Planet.

That said, it becomes obvious that there should be some best practices for reducing the possibility of a SQL injection attack. Three practices focus on the management and design aspect of a SQL database system:

Do Not Blindly Trust Input

Simply put, any input into the SQL engine should be validated – which means organizations should build and enforce secure coding guidelines that requires SQL be constructed using parameterized queries, a coding-intensive technique that prevents SQL injection attacks by separating executable code from inputted data.

Create Error Messages with Care

Attackers often use poorly crafted error messages to figure out how to better attack a database. Developers and DBAs need to consider what information is returned via an error, when there is unexpected input. For example, if a logon error comes back with "user names cannot contain numbers," that may give an attacker insight on how to leverage pilfered user account information.

Keep Databases and Applications Fully Patched

It should go without saying that security patches should be regularly applied. However, patching is one of the most overlooked security techniques. That may be due to poor management, lack of vendor notifications or a combination of these and other factors. For many, the only solution is to implement a patch management system that removes manual tasks, which often fall through the cracks.

While these best practices are a good start, there are other practices that should be considered. These three practices may incur additional costs, but are ultimately worthwhile in the long run if they prevent a breach from occurring.

Implement Network Monitoring Tools

Monitoring access activity at the application level can quickly give an indication that an attack is occurring. Simple clues, such as an increase in errors or an increase in activity, can be used to warn administrators of an attack in progress.

Implement Filtering Tools

Realtime security applications can work with monitoring systems to block attacks as they occur, by filtering the suspect traffic and denying access to the database.

Enhance Database Security

Additional authentication systems that work with single sign on (SSO) solutions and can integrate with backend databases and application security controls can bring additional protection to vulnerable databases. What’s more, high end authentication systems also incorporate logging and auditing capabilities, as well as control the native privileges that are associated with high-end databases. In other words, privileged access is only available to administrators, and if others try to gain privileged access the event is recorded and reported.

Combining best practices with aftermarket technologies proves to be the best path to protecting databases from SQL injection attacks, which are likely to remain a major threat to enterprises both large and small.

Frank Ohlhorst is an award-winning technology journalist, professional speaker and IT business consultant with over 25 years of experience in the technology arena. He has written for several leading technology publications, including ComputerWorld, TechTarget, PCWorld, ExtremeTech, Tom's Hardware and business publications, including Entrepreneur, Forbes and BNET. Ohlhorst was also the eexecutive technology editor for Ziff Davis Enterprise's eWeek and formerly the director of the CRN Test Center.

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