What Is an SQL Injection Attack and How Does It Lead to a Data Breach

SQL Injection

Data security is a big problem right now. We all know that information faces a number of threats when it's online, but we rarely think about the reasons for this. In theory, things shouldn't be so bad.

Everybody knows that there are hordes of cybercriminals out there who are too lazy to get a proper job and prefer to spend their time wreaking havoc and making other people's lives more difficult. There is evidence, however, that quite a few service providers aren't terribly well informed about the actual mechanisms hackers use to break into systems and steal information.

As we have discussed many times on these pages, many attack methods revolve around the users' passwords. The crooks can use social engineering to phish the login credentials, they can brute-force their way in, or they can simply rely on users' tendency to reuse passwords. The ways of compromising login credentials are innumerable, and it must be said that at least some providers are trying to do something to mitigate the risks. There is one attack, however, that, despite being incredibly old, is often overlooked.

What is an SQL injection?

SQL stands for Structured Query Language – a programming language used for managing data in databases, and as for the "injection" part of the name, it refers to the act of positioning a piece of malicious code in such a way that the targeted application will be fooled into executing it. SQL injections have existed for a very long time now, and they've been hugely popular with cybercriminals, not least because they're not that hard to pull off. Automated tools can crawl millions of websites for SQL injection vulnerabilities, and, having found a sufficient number of targets, they can carry out the attack on their own.

An SQL injection attack can be mounted against any application that uses SQL, but needless to say, more often than not, it is launched at websites and other web-based apps. Usually, the starting point for an SQL injection is the login form, but instead of entering a password, the crooks input a string which tricks the application into executing a specific command. In some cases, they can take over an account, but in others, they can manipulate, steal, and even delete the data in the SQL database. It all depends on the command they enter.

Which websites are vulnerable to SQL injections?

If a website consists of static HTML pages and has no input fields whatsoever, it likely doesn't rely on an SQL database to run and therefore can't be affected by an SQL injection. In this day and age, however, web applications tend to be much more dynamic and interactive, and SQL databases are an integral part of their core functionality.

Obviously, these days, most of the websites are created with the help of software applications like WordPress. They also rely on some server-side tools to operate.

Website building applications like WordPress, themes and plugins for them, and server-side software can have bugs that, when exploited, lead to SQL injection vulnerabilities, which is why it's important to keep them updated at all times. Patches for SQL injection security holes are often released in a timely manner, and it's important not to waste time applying them.

When the website is custom-built, the developer is responsible for making sure that SQL injections are stopped in their tracks. This doesn't sound like a terribly easy job, but thankfully, experts that are part of The Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP) maintain a list of best practices that should stop this specific type of attacks. If you build web applications for a living, you should probably get familiar with this list as soon as possible.

A data breach can land a massive blow on a service provider's reputation, and often, the damage is irreparable. SQL injection attacks are fairly straightforward to pull off which is why if you want your organization to keep its face, you must make sure that your users are protected.

November 13, 2018

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