In a DevSecOps organization, security and development practices go hand in hand. SQL injection (SQLi) attacks are severe vulnerabilities that can result in devastating data breaches. I’ll explain how SQLi attacks work, why your organization should have a robust incident response process, and show how to integrate development and operational best practices to prevent and rapidly mitigate SQL injection attacks.
What Is a SQL Injection Attack?
SQL injection is a common attack vector that allows an attacker to pass malicious SQL statements to a backend database. Attackers can leverage SQLi to perform unwanted operations on the database or modify application queries.
To perform a SQL injection attack, an attacker must look for vulnerable input in a web application or web page. Any input that can be used to pass a SQL query is an open door for attackers. A hacker can execute special SQL commands and retrieve data from the database, bypassing authorization.
SQL injection is a way to circumvent login and other security controls. It gives attackers direct access to the database, exposing sensitive data and enabling the attacker to compromise the database itself.
For example, a successful SQL injection attack can allow attackers to modify data in database tables, gain access to the database engine’s file system, and perform administrative operations, such as shutting down or deleting the database. In some cases, attackers can access the underlying operating system, compromising the entire host running the database.
The Importance of an Incident Response Plan
The incident response process involves detecting security incidents affecting network resources and information assets, taking appropriate actions, investigating and mitigating incidents.
Whether it is a SQL injection attack, malware infection, or ransomware attack, a security incident can severely disrupt an organization’s day-to-day operations and cause long term damage.
By implementing a clearly defined incident response plan, organizations can effectively identify these incidents and react to them, minimizing losses and reducing the cost of cyberattacks. Such a plan will also help businesses learn from experience and prevent future attacks.
Elements of an Incident Response Plan
Here are three key elements any organization should address as part of its incident response plan.
Incident Response Team
In all but the largest organizations, an incident response team will not consist entirely of dedicated staff. Employees in existing security and IT roles can become a virtual incident response team, which comes together in a time of crisis.
The virtual nature of incident response teams makes planning even more important. Each team member must know their role and what they need to do to help mitigate a security incident.
The incident response plan must clearly define:
- The responsibilities of each member of the incident response team.
- Contact information of all team members and supporting roles in the organization—such as legal, media relations, and senior management.
- Backups for each team member ensure that the team can function in case someone is absent.
An incident response team cannot function without knowing which technical assets they are protecting and having relevant access to each asset. An incident response team must map out:
- An inventory of business-critical assets the organization needs to defend.
- Which of the defended assets are integrated or reside in the same network. In the case of a SQL injection attack, it is important to know which applications connect to which databases and where the webserver and database are hosted.
- Which part of the organization owns or operates each asset. In some cases, third parties operate some of the assets—as in the case of cloud-based databases or software as a service (SaaS) applications.
Incident response teams require technologies and tools to respond to incidents effectively. These include:
- Detection and prevention tools, such as firewalls, intrusion detection and prevention (IDS/IPS) systems, and security information and event management (SIEM).
- Threat intelligence and modeling tools can help incident responders identify if the behavior of entities in the environment matches known attack patterns or previously recorded tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs).
- Communication and collaboration tools allow incident responders to communicate in a crisis. Attackers may compromise regular communication channels, such as corporate email servers, so there must be an alternative way to share information about the incident.
The Incident Response Process
An incident response plan outlines how an organization should react to a cyberattack. You should address several stages when developing your incident response plan:
Incident response teams must react faultlessly in the case of a cyberattack, and that demands preparation.
Your organization must put together a security policy specifying how company information can be used, consequences for security violations, and definitions of security incidents. The policy must include a step-by-step guide specifying how the incident response team should manage incidents, including external and internal communication and the documentation of events. As part of your policy, you can create specific action plans for attacks like SQL injection.
How to prepare for SQL injection attacks
The best way to prepare for SQL injection attacks is to avoid injection vulnerabilities in your code. Conduct developer education sessions to ensure all developers are aware of SQL injection attacks and know proper coding practices that can prevent them. The main points developers should be aware of are:
- Input validation—it is critical to validate user inputs to ensure they do not contain unexpected characters or malicious statements.
- Parameterized queries—substitute arguments before running the SQL query, removing the possibility that malicious inputs can change the meaning of the query.
In addition, ensure you do not grant a web application administrative or root access to a database server—so that even if SQL injection takes place, the damage is limited.
Identification is the process of discovering malicious activity. Publicly available threat details, insider information, or security and monitoring tools make up the discovery process. A component of identification is collecting and analyzing as much information as possible regarding malicious behavior.
Incident response teams should be capable of distinguishing between actual malicious activity and legitimate user behavior. Organizations cannot allow any mistakes in the identification process, as an unidentified incident can have catastrophic effects.
How to identify SQL injection attacks
You can perform early detection of SQL injection attacks using Dynamic Application Security Testing (DAST) tools. DAST performs black-box testing on a new version of your application during the development and testing stages—it can identify SQL injection flaws and return detailed feedback to developers to help remediation.
Beyond testing, you should have a way to detect SQL injection attacks when they happen in production:
- Regularly review server logs
- Monitor database errors
- Use web application firewalls (WAF) to inspect HTTP requests for malicious SQL statements
Containment, Removal, and Recovery
There are two types of containment:
- Long-term containment – restores systems in production, removing compromised malware, accounts, and backdoors that permitted the intrusion.
- Short-term containment – stops the threat from doing more damage by spreading. This form of containment requires an immediate response, involving backing up all impacted systems for further investigation.
The incident removal process involves finding the point of compromise, discovering the attack scope, and eliminating any left-over backdoor access. At this stage, incident response teams eliminate any remnants of the attack. Furthermore, they work out the root cause of the event, in order to understand how attackers carried it out and stop similar attacks.
Recovery involves testing the fixes from the containment stage and restoring normal operations. In this step, security teams update passwords on compromised accounts and create safer access methods. Furthermore, they remediate vulnerabilities and test functionality after security fixes.
How to contain and remediate SQL injection attacks:
Containment will depend on the level of access attackers have managed to obtain to back-end systems:
- If attackers only used SQL injection attacks to exfiltrate data, containment involves identifying and remediating the underlying SQL injection flaw.
- If attackers gained access to the database, reset passwords and audit the database for changes introduced by malicious parties. If necessary, restore the database from backup.
- If attackers achieved access to the underlying server host, examine the host and all systems on the network for malware, backdoors, and other signs of lateral movement. Reset passwords and ensure there are no rogue accounts on the database server or network.
After bringing systems online, perform thorough scans to ensure they are clean and to prevent re-infection.
Mistakes are inevitable during all incident response cycles. Learning from such mistakes and noticing what went wrong is essential for improving incident response plans. It creates a focus for your team meeting and offers feedback on what was successful and what wasn’t. It also provides recommendations for advancing the process.
How to leverage lessons learned from a real attack for SQL injection:
In the prevention stage, I recommended conducting developer educational sessions to ensure developers know secure coding practices that can prevent SQLi. When a real incident occurs, you must capture the details of the flaw that caused the attack and use it in your educational sessions. There is nothing stronger than showing developers a flaw that resulted in an actual attack.
Of course, make sure to anonymize the code to protect the privacy of developers who worked on it and avoid finger-pointing. The objective should be to convey correct coding practices, not to shame those responsible for the breach.
In this article, I described how SQL injection attacks work, and explained the essential elements of an incident response process. Finally, I showed a four-step incident response process, and explained how you can mitigate SQL injection attacks at every stage:
- Preparation—prepare for SQL injection attacks by conducting developer education and scanning software for vulnerabilities during development stages.
- Identification—identify SQL injection attacks by conducting DAST scans in testing and production, and leveraging application security tools like WAF.
- Containment, removal, and recovery—depending on the depth of the breach, remediate SQLi vulnerabilities and clean database and affected hosts.
- Lessons learned—use the specific coding flaws that enabled the breach to strengthen developer education and awareness of secure coding practices.