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Archive for August, 2010

SQL Injection – Why Does Our Profession Continue to Build Applications that Support It?

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

SQL Injection is commonly given as a  root cause when news sites report about stolen data. Here are a few recent headlines for articles describing data loss related to SQL injection: Hackers steal customer data by accessing supermarket database1, Hacker swipes details of 4m Pirate Bay users2, and Mass Web Attack Hits Wall Street Journal, Jerusalem Post3. I understand that SQL injection is prevalent; I just don’t understand why developers continue to write code that offers this avenue to attackers.

From my point of view SQL injection is very well understood and has been for many years. There is no excuse for a programmer to create code that allows for such an attack to succeed. For me this issue falls squarely on the shoulders of people writing applications. If you do not understand the mechanics of SQL injection and don’t know how to effectively prevent it then you shouldn’t be writing software.

The mechanics of SQL injection are very simple. If input from outside an application is incorporated into a SQL statement as literal text, a potential SQL injection vulnerability is created. Specifically, if a parameter value is retrieved from user input and appended into a SQL statement which is then passed on to the RDBMS, the parameter’s value can be set by an attacker to alter the meaning of the original SQL statement.

Note that this attack is not difficult to engineer, complicated to execute or a risk only with web-based applications. There are tools to quickly locate and attack vulnerable applications. Also note that using encrypted channels (e.g. HTTPS) does nothing to prevent this attack. The issue is not related to encrypting the data in transit, rather, it is about keeping the untrusted data away from the backend RDMBS’ interpretation environment.

Here is a simple example of how SQL injection works. Assume we have an application that accepts a last name which will be used to search a database for contact information. The program takes the input, stores it in a variable called lastName, and creates a query:

String sql = "select * from contact_info where lname = '" + lastName + "'";

Now, if an attacker tries the input of: ‘ or 1=1 or ’2′=’

It will create a SQL statement of:

select * from contact_info where lname = '' or 1=1 or '2'=''

This is a legal SQL statement and will retrieve all the rows from the contact_info table. This might expose a lot of data or possibly crash the environment (a denial of service attack). In any case, using other SQL keywords, particularly UNION, the attacker can now explore the database, including other tables and schemas.


Semantic Workbench – A Humble Beginning

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

As a way to work with semantic web concepts, including asserting triples, seeing the resulting inferences and also leveraging SPARQL, I have needed a GUI.  In this post I’ll describe a very basic tool that I have created and released that allows a user to interact with a semantic model.

My objectives for this first GUI were basic:

  1. Support input of a set of triples in any format that Jena supports (e.g. REF/XML, N3, N-Triples and Turtle)
  2. See the inferences that result for a set of assertions
  3. Create a tree view of the ontology
  4. Make it easy to use SPARQL queries with the model
  5. Allow the resulting model to be written to a file, again using any format supported by Jena

Here are some screen shots of the application.  Explanations of the tabs are then provided.

The program provides each feature in a very basic way.  On the Assertions tab a text area is used for entering assertions.  The user may also load a text file containing assertions using the File|Open menu item.  Once the assertions are entered, a button is enabled that allows the reasoner to process the assertions.  The reasoner level is controlled by the user from a drop down.


Creating RDF Triples from a Relational Database

Thursday, August 5th, 2010

In an earlier blog entry I discussed the potential reduction in refactoring effort if our data is represented as RDF triples rather than relational structures.  As a way to give myself easy access to RDF data and to work more with semantic web tool features I have created a program to export relational data to RDF.

The program is really a proof-of-concept.  It takes a SQL query and converts the resulting rows into assertions of triples.  The approach is simple: given a SQL statement and a chosen primary key column (PK) to represent the instance for the exported data, assert triples with the primary key column value as the subject, the column names as the predicates and the non-PK column values as the objects.

Here is a brief sample taken from the documentation accompanying the code.

  • Given a table named people with the following columns and rows:
       id    name    age
       --    ----    ---
       1     Fred    20
       2     Martha  25
  • And a query of:  select id, name, age from people
  • And the primary key column set to: id
  • Then the asserted triples (shown using Turtle and skipping prefixes) will be:
          a       owl:Thing , dsr:RdbData ;
          rdfs:label "1" ;
          dsr:name "Fred" ;
          dsr:age "20" .

          a       owl:Thing , dsr:RdbData ;
          rdfs:label "2" ;
          dsr:name "Martha" ;
          dsr:age "25" .

You can see that the approach represents a quick way to convert the data.