Programming

Preventing SQL Injections in Java

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When we have a look at OWASP’s top 10 vulnerabilities [1], SQL Injections are still in a popular position. In this short article, we discuss several options on how SQL Injections could be avoided.

When Applications have to deal with databases existing always high-security concerns, if an invader got the possibility to hijack the database layer of your application, he can choose between several options. Stolen the data of the stored users to flood them with spam is not the worst scenario that could happen. Even more problematic would be when stored payment information got abused. Another possibility of an SQL Injection Cyber attack is to get illegal access to restricted pay content and/or services. As we can see, there are many reasons why to care about (Web) Application security.

To find well-working preventions against SQL Injections, we need first to understand how an SQL Injection attack works and on which points we need to pay attention. In short: every user interaction that processes the input unfiltered in an SQL query is a possible target for an attack. The data input can be manipulated in a manner that the submitted SQL query contains a different logic than the original. Listing 1 will give you a good idea about what could be possible.

SELECT Username, Password, Role FROM User
   WHERE Username="John Doe" AND Password = 'S3cr3t';
SELECT Username, Password, Role FROM Users
   WHERE Username="John Doe"; --' AND Password='S3cr3t';

Listing 1: Simple SQL Injection

The first statement in Listing 1 shows the original query. If the Input for the variables Username and Password is not filtered, we have a lack of security. The second query injects for the variable Username a String with the username John Doe and extends with the characters ‘; –. This statement bypasses the AND branch and gives, in this case, access to the login. The ‘; sequence close the WHERE statement and with — all following characters got un-commented. Theoretically, it is possible to execute between both character sequences every valid SQL code.

Of course, my plan is not to spread around ideas that SQL commands could rise up the worst consequences for the victim. With this simple example, I assume the message is clear. We need to protect each UI input variable in our application against user manipulation. Even if they are not used directly for database queries. To detect those variables, it is always a good idea to validate all existing input forms. But modern applications have mostly more than just a few input forms. For this reason, I also mention keeping an eye on your REST endpoints. Often their parameters are also connected with SQL queries.

For this reason, Input validation, in general, should be part of the security concept. Annotations from the Bean Validation [2] specification are, for this purpose, very powerful. For example, @NotNull, as an Annotation for the data field in the domain object, ensure that the object only is able to persist if the variable is not empty. To use the Bean Validation Annotations in your Java project, you just need to include a small library.

<dependency>
    <groupId>org.hibernate.validator</groupId>
    <artifactId>hibernate-validator</artifactId>
    <version>${version}</version>
</dependency>

Listing 2: Maven Dependency for Bean Validation

Perhaps it could be necessary to validate more complex data structures. With Regular Expressions, you have another powerful tool in your hands. But be careful. It is not that easy to write correct working RegEx. Let’s have a look at a short example.

public static final String RGB_COLOR = "#[0-9a-fA-F]{3,3}([0-9a-fA-F]{3,3})?";

public boolean validate(String content, String regEx) {
    boolean test;
    if (content.matches(regEx)) {
        test = true;
    } else {
        test = false;
    }
    return test;
}

validate('#000', RGB_COLOR);

Listing 3: Validation by Regular Expression in Java

The RegEx to detect the correct RGB color schema is quite simple. Valid inputs are #ffF or #000000. The Range for the characters is 0-9, and the Letters A to F. Case insensitive. When you develop your own RegEx, you always need to check very well existing boundaries. A good example is also the 24 hours time format. Typical mistakes are invalid entries like 23:60 or 24:00. The validate method compares the input string with the RegEx. If the pattern matches the input, the method will return true. If you want to get more ideas about validators in Java, you can also check my GitHub repository [3].

In resume, our first idea to secure user input against abuse is to filter out all problematic character sequences, like — and so on. Well, this intention of creating a blocking list is not that bad. But still have some limitations. At first, the complexity of the application increased because blocking single characters like –; and ‘ could causes sometimes unwanted side effects. Also, an application-wide default limitation of the characters could cost sometimes problems. Imagine there is a text area for a Blog system or something equal.

This means we need another powerful concept to filter the input in a manner our SQL query can not manipulate. To reach this goal, the SQL standard has a very great solution we can use. SQL Parameters are variables inside an SQL query that will be interpreted as content and not as a statement. This allows large texts to block some dangerous characters. Let’s have a look at how this will work on a PostgreSQL [4] database.

DECLARE user String;
SELECT * FROM login WHERE name = user;

Listing 4: Defining Parameters in PostgreSQL

In the case you are using the OR mapper Hibernate, there exists a more elegant way with the Java Persistence API (JPA).

String myUserInput;

@PersistenceContext
public EntityManager mainEntityManagerFactory;

CriteriaBuilder builder =
    mainEntityManagerFactory.getCriteriaBuilder();

CriteriaQuery<DomainObject> query =
    builder.createQuery(DomainObject.class);

// create Criteria
Root<ConfigurationDO> root =
    query.from(DomainObject.class);

//Criteria SQL Parameters
ParameterExpression<String> paramKey =
    builder.parameter(String.class);

query.where(builder.equal(root.get("name"), paramKey);

// wire queries together with parameters
TypedQuery<ConfigurationDO> result =
    mainEntityManagerFactory.createQuery(query);

result.setParameter(paramKey, myUserInput);
DomainObject entry = result.getSingleResult();

Listing 5: Hibernate JPA SQL Parameter Usage

Listing 5 is shown as a full example of Hibernate using JPA with the criteria API. The variable for the user input is declared in the first line. The comments in the listing explain the way how it works. As you can see, this is no rocket science. The solution has some other nice benefits besides improving web application security. At first, no plain SQL is used. This ensures that each database management system supported by Hibernate can be secured by this code.

May the usage looks a bit more complex than a simple query, but the benefit for your application is enormous. On the other hand, of course, there are some extra lines of code. But they are not that difficult to understand.



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