4 Common Misconceptions About SQL Injection Attacks

Photo by Jaanus Jagomägi on Unsplash

Interested in learning more about SQL injection attacks, including how to prevent them?  Attend my online webcast on Tuesday November 14, 2017 at 1PM Eastern at the PASS Security Virtual Group.

SQL injection continues to be one of the biggest security risks that we face as database professionals.

Every year, millions of users’ personal information is leaked due to poorly written queries exploited by SQL injection.  The sad truth is that SQL injection is completely preventable with the right knowledge.

My goal today is to cover four common misconceptions that people have about SQL injection in an effort to dissuade any illusions that an injection attack is not something that can happen to you.

Prefer watching me get angry about these common misconceptions?  You can watch this content on my YouTube channel.

1. “My database information isn’t public”

Let’s see, without me knowing anything about your databases, I’m guessing you might have some tables with names like:

  • Users
  • Inventory
  • Products
  • Sales
  • etc…

Any of those sound familiar?

You might not be publicly publishing your database object names, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t easy to guess.

All a malicious user needs is a list of common database table names and they can iterate over the ones they are interested in until they find the ones that match in your system.

2. “But I obfuscate all of my table and column names!”

Oh jeez.  I hope you don’t do this.

Some people do this for job security (“since only I can understand my naming conventions, I’m guaranteeing myself a job!”) and that’s a terrible reason in and of itself.

Doing it for security reasons is just as horrible though.  Why?  Well, have you ever heard of some system tables like sys.objects and sys.columns?

A hacker wanting to get into your system can easily write queries like the ones above, revealing your “secure” naming conventions.

Security through obscurity doesn’t work.  If you have table names that aren’t common, that’s perfectly fine, but don’t use that as your only form of prevention.

3. “Injection is the developer’s/dba’s/somebody else’s problem”

You’re exactly right.  SQL injection is a problem that should be tackled by the developer/dba/other person.

But it’s also a problem that benefits from multiple layers of security, meaning it’s your problem to solve as well.

Preventing sql injection is hard.

Developers should be validating, sanitizing, parameterizing etc…  DBAs should be parameterizing, sanitizing, restricting access, etc..

Multiple layers of security in the app and in the database are the only way to confidently prevent an injection attack.

4. “I’m too small of a fish in a big pond – no one would go out of their way to attack me”

So you run a niche business making and selling bespoke garden gnomes.

You only have a few dozen/hundred customers, so who would bother trying to steal your data with SQL injection?

Well, most SQL injection attacks can be completely automated with tools like sqlmap.  Someone might not care about your business enough to handcraft some SQL injection code, but that won’t stop them from stealing your handcrafted garden gnome customers’ data through automated means.

No app, big or small, is protected from the wrath of automated SQL injection tooling.

Interested in learning more about SQL injection attacks, including how to prevent them?  Attend my online webcast on Tuesday November 14, 2017 at 1PM Eastern at the PASS Security Virtual Group.

Thanks for reading. You might also enjoy following me on Twitter.

ʼ;ŚℇℒℇℂƮ *: How Unicode Homoglyphs Can Thwart Your Database Security

Photo by Niketh Vellanki on Unsplash

For the past couple weeks I’ve been writing about how to protect your database from a SQL injection attack.  Today, we will keep the trend going by looking at how implicit unicode conversions can leave your data vulnerable.

You can also watch this content on my YouTube channel.

What’s a homoglyph?

A homoglyph is a character that looks like another character. l  (lowercase “L”) and 1  (the number) are considered homoglyphs.  So are O  (the letter) and 0  (the number).

Homoglpyhs can exist within a character set (like the Latin character set examples above) or they can exist between character sets.  For example, you may have the unicode apostrophe  ʼ, which is a homoglyph to the Latin single quote character ' .

How does SQL Server handle unicode homoglyphs?

Funny you should ask.  If you pass in a unicode character to a non-unicode datatype (like char), SQL implicitly converts the unicode character to its closest resembling non-unicode homoglyph.

To see this in action, we can use the unicode apostrophe from the example above:

You can see in the second column SQL automatically converted the apostrophe to a single quote:

Although this implicit character conversion can be convenient for when you want to display unicode characters in a non-unicode character set, it can spell disaster for your SQL Server security.

Unicode Homoglyph SQL Injection

If you are already using sp_executesql or QUOTENAME() when building your dynamic SQL queries then you are safe from this type of SQL injection.

I know you aren’t the kind of person who would ever write your own security functions when solid, safe, and tested functions like the above are available.  However, just this one time let’s pretend you think you can outsmart a hacker by writing your own quote delimiting code.

Using the same dataset as last week, let’s create a new stored procedure that is going to return some data from a user’s profile:

Instead of using sp_executesql or QUOTENAME(), let’s try to write our own clever REPLACE() function that will replace single quotes with two sets of single quotes.  This should, in theory, prevent SQL injection.

If we test out a “normal” attempt at SQL injection, you’ll notice this logic works great.  Give yourself a pat on the back!

However, if we pass in a unicode apostrophe…:

The reason this happens is because we declared our @Query parameter as varchar instead of the unicode nvarchar.  When we build our dynamic SQL statement, SQL implicitly converts the nvarchar @Username parameter to the non-unicode varchar:

So if I replace apostrophes will that make me safe?

No.

I know it seems like black listing/replacing the unicode apostrophe would solve all of our problems.

And it would…in this scenario only.  There are more unicode homoglpyhs than just an apostrophe though.

Out of curiosity I wrote a script to search through the unicode character space to see what other homoglyphs exist:

Although the characters in the above screen shot might look similar, they are actually homoglyphs.

I decided to only search for single quotes and semi-colons since they are frequently used in SQL injection attacks, but this by no means is an extensive list of all of the characters you would want to blacklist.

Not only would it be very difficult to confidently blacklist every dangerous homoglyph, but new characters are being added to unicode all of the time so maintaining a black list would be a maintenance nightmare.  Especially if the person maintaining this code in the future isn’t familiar with these types of injection attacks.

And don’t be cheeky thinking you can filter out dangerous SQL keywords either – even if you REPLACE(@Username,’SELECT’,”), just remember someone can come by and pass in a value like ‘ŚεℒℇℂƮ’.

Conclusion

Don’t write your own security functions – they will fail.

Your best protection against SQL injection is to not use dynamic SQL.  If you have to use dynamic SQL, then use either sp_executesql and QUOTENAME().

Thanks for reading. You might also enjoy following me on Twitter.

How to Safely Parameterize Table Names

Protecting against SQL Injection Part 2

Photo by Igor Ovsyannykov on Unsplash

Watch this content on YouTube.

Last week we talked about building dynamic SQL queries and how doing so might leave you open to SQL injection attacks.

In that post we examined how using sp_executesql to parameterize our dynamic SQL statements protects us.

Today, we are going to look at where sp_executesql falls short.

The problem with sp_executesql

Let’s modify last week’s final query to make our table name dynamic:

(there’s an entirely different discussion to be had about whether you should allow table and column names to be dynamic, but we’ll assume we need a dynamic table name for the rest of this post)

If we pass in a table name parameter value and execute this query, we’ll be greeted with this error:

Yeah, sp_executesql doesn’t like parameterizing a table names.

So how do we make table name dynamic and safe?

Unfortunately we have to fall back on SQL’s EXEC command.

However, like we discussed last week, we need to be vigilant about what kind of user input we allow to be built as part of our query.

Assuming our app layer is already sanitizing as much of the user input as possible, here are some precautions we can take on the SQL side of the equation:

QUOTENAME()

If we wrap our user input parameters with QUOTENAME(), we’ll achieve safety:

This results in:

Although QUOTENAME() works well by adding brackets (by default) to sanitize quotes, it’s downside is that it will only output strings up to 128 characters long. If you are expecting parameters with values longer than that, you will have to use something like REPLACE(@TableName,'''','''''') instead to delimit single quotes (however, rolling your own logic like this is really hard to do securely and not recommended).

EXECUTE AS

The account running any dynamic SQL queries should be locked down so that it won’t be able to perform any operations you don’t want it to do.

Taking this idea one step further, you can create another account with very limited permissions, and add EXECUTE AS to your stored procedure to run that code under the very limited account.

This won’t prevent injection, but it will limit what the malicious user is able to do.

Thanks for reading. You might also enjoy following me on Twitter.