QL injection, also known as SQLI, is a common attack vector that uses malicious SQL code for backend database manipulation to access information that was not intended to be displayed. This information may include any number of items, including sensitive company data, user lists or private customer details.
The impact SQL injection can have on a business is far-reaching. A successful attack may result in the unauthorized viewing of user lists, the deletion of entire tables and, in certain cases, the attacker gaining administrative rights to a database, all of which are highly detrimental to a business.
When calculating the potential cost of an SQLi, it’s important to consider the loss of customer trust should personal information such as phone numbers, addresses, and credit card details be stolen.
While this vector can be used to attack any SQL database, websites are the most frequent targets. What are SQL queries
SQL is a standardized language used to access and manipulate databases to build customizable data views for each user. SQL queries are used to execute commands, such as data retrieval, updates, and record removal. Different SQL elements implement these tasks, e.g., queries using the SELECT statement to retrieve data, based on user-provided parameters.
A typical eStore’s SQL database query may look like the following:
SELECT ItemName, ItemDescription FROM Item WHERE ItemNumber = ItemNumber
From this, the web application builds a string query that is sent to the database as a single SQL statement:
sql_query= " SELECT ItemName, ItemDescription FROM Item WHERE ItemNumber = " & Request.QueryString("ItemID")
A user-provided input estore.com/items/items.asp?itemid=999 can then generates the following SQL query:
SELECT ItemName, ItemDescription FROM Item WHERE ItemNumber = 999
As you can gather from the syntax, this query provides the name and description for item number 999.
Types of SQL Injections
SQL injections typically fall under three categories: In-band SQLi (Classic), Inferential SQLi (Blind) and Out-of-band SQLi. You can classify SQL injections types based on the methods they use to access backend data and their damage potential.
The attacker uses the same channel of communication to launch their attacks and to gather their results. In-band SQLi’s simplicity and efficiency make it one of the most common types of SQLi attack. There are two sub-variations of this method:
The attacker performs actions that cause the database to produce error messages. The attacker can potentially use the data provided by these error messages to gather information about the structure of the database.
This technique takes advantage of the UNION SQL operator, which fuses multiple select statements generated by the database to get a single HTTP response. This response may contain data that can be leveraged by the attacker.
Inferential (Blind) SQLi
The attacker sends data payloads to the server and observes the response and behavior of the server to learn more about its structure. This method is called blind SQLi because the data is not transferred from the website database to the attacker, thus the attacker cannot see information about the attack in-band.
Blind SQL injections rely on the response and behavioral patterns of the server so they are typically slower to execute but may be just as harmful. Blind SQL injections can be classified as follows:
That attacker sends a SQL query to the database prompting the application to return a result. The result will vary depending on whether the query is true or false. Based on the result, the information within the HTTP response will modify or stay unchanged. The attacker can then work out if the message generated a true or false result.
Attacker sends a SQL query to the database, which makes the database wait (for a period in seconds) before it can react. The attacker can see from the time the database takes to respond, whether a query is true or false. Based on the result, an HTTP response will be generated instantly or after a waiting period. The attacker can thus work out if the message they used returned true or false, without relying on data from the database.
The attacker can only carry out this form of attack when certain features are enabled on the database server used by the web application. This form of attack is primarily used as an alternative to the in-band and inferential SQLi techniques.
Out-of-band SQLi is performed when the attacker can’t use the same channel to launch the attack and gather information, or when a server is too slow or unstable for these actions to be performed. These techniques count on the capacity of the server to create DNS or HTTP requests to transfer data to an attacker.
SQL injection example
An attacker wishing to execute SQL injection manipulates a standard SQL query to exploit non-validated input vulnerabilities in a database. There are many ways that this attack vector can be executed, several of which will be shown here to provide you with a general idea about how SQLI works.
As a result, the corresponding SQL query looks like this:
SELECT ItemName, ItemDescription FROM Items WHERE ItemNumber = 999 OR 1=1
And since the statement 1 = 1 is always true, the query returns all of the product names and descriptions in the database, even those that you may not be eligible to access.
Attackers are also able to take advantage of incorrectly filtered characters to alter SQL commands, including using a semicolon to separate two fields.
SELECT ItemName, ItemDescription FROM Items WHERE ItemNumber = 999; DROP TABLE USERS
As a result, the entire user database could be deleted.
Another way SQL queries can be manipulated is with a UNION SELECT statement. This combines two unrelated SELECT queries to retrieve data from different database tables.
SELECT ItemName, ItemDescription FROM Items WHERE ItemID = '999' UNION SELECT Username, Password FROM Users;
Using the UNION SELECT statement, this query combines the request for item 999’s name and description with another that pulls names and passwords for every user in the database.
SQL injection combined with OS Command Execution: The Accellion Attack
Accellion, maker of File Transfer Appliance (FTA), a network device widely deployed in organizations around the world, and used to move large, sensitive files. The product is over 20 years old and is now at end of life.
FTA was the subject of a unique, highly sophisticated attack combining SQL injection with operating system command execution. Experts speculate the Accellion attack was carried out by hackers with connections to the financial crimes group FIN11, and ransomware group Clop.
The attack demonstrates that SQL injection is not just an attack that affects web applications or web services, but can also be used to compromise back-end systems and exfiltrate data.