SQL injection attacks led to Heartland, Hannaford breaches

Details of the attacks could spur focus on Web app security

This week's disclosure that the huge data thefts at Heartland Payment Systems and other retailers resulted from SQL injection attacks could finally push retailers to pay serious attention to Web application security vulnerabilities, just as the breach at TJX focused attention on wireless issues.

A federal grand jury on Monday indicted Albert Gonzalez and two unidentified Russian accomplices on charges related to data intrusions at Heartland, Hannaford Bros., 7-Eleven and three other retailers. Gonzalez is alleged to have masterminded an international operation that stole a staggering 130 million credit and debit card numbers from those companies. Gonzalez and 10 other individuals were indicted in May 2008 on charges related to similar intrusions at numerous other retailers, including TJX Dave & Busters, BJ's Wholesale Club, OfficeMax, Boston Market, Barnes & Noble, Sports Authority, Forever 21 and DSW.

Court documents filed in connection with Monday's indictment spelled out how Gonzalez and his accomplices used SQL injection attacks to break into Heartland's systems and those of the other companies. Once they gained access to a network, the attackers then planted sophisticated packet-sniffing tools and other malware to detect and steal sensitive payment card data flowing over the retailers' networks.

In SQL injection attacks, hackers can take advantage of poorly coded Web application software to introduce malicious code into a company's systems and network. The vulnerability exists when a Web application fails to properly filter or validate the data a user might enter on a Web page -- such as when ordering something online. An attacker can take advantage of this input validation error to send a malformed SQL query to the underlying database to break into it, plant malicious code or access other systems on the network. Large Web applications have hundreds of places where users can input data, each of which can provide a SQL injection opportunity.

The vulnerability is well understood, and security analysts have warned retailers about it for several years. Yet a large number of all Web-facing applications are believed to contain SQL injection vulnerabilities -- a fact that has made SQL injection the most common form of attack against Web sites.

"We see SQL injection as the top attack technique on the Web," said Michael Petitti, chief marketing officer at Trustwave, a Chicago-based company that conducts security and compliance assessments for some of the largest retailers in the world, including -- ironically -- Heartland, for whom it was a security assessor.

"Not only is it the most attempted, it is also the most successful" form of attack now employed by malicious hackers, Petitti said.

Launching such attacks is not difficult, said Chris Wysopal, co-founder and chief technology officer at Veracode, a firm that offers application penetration testing services for companies. Tools are available that allow attackers to quickly check home-grown and third-party Web applications for SQL injection vulnerabilities, he said. One such tool might find a form field on a Web page, enter data into it, and check the response it gets to see whether a SQL injection vulnerability exists.

"It doesn't require much expertise at all," Wysopal said. "It is at the script-kiddie level to do these kinds of attacks." Exacerbating the situation is the fact that many companies are still using older versions of the MS SQL Server database that allow attackers to essentially take complete control of the database via SQL injection, Wysopal said.

The use of SQL injection attacks has gained popularity as companies have gotten better at shutting down other avenues for breaking into corporate systems and networks, said Matt Marshall, vice president of security engineering at Redspin, which performs security assessments for businesses. "One of the few ports that are still allowed through the firewall is Web traffic through the Web server," he said. "It is one of the few avenues of attacks that are still readily available" to hackers.

Those factors seem to have influenced Gonzalez's plans in attacking retailers. Initially, most of the attacks -- including the one at TJX -- took advantage of weak wireless access points. But starting around August 2007, he stopped using wireless vulnerabilities and turned almost exclusively to SQL injection attacks.

The success of those attacks and the high-profile nature of the retailers affected are likely to push more companies to deal with Web application security issues. "When vulnerable technologies get deployed, security people notice it and inform [clients], but no action is usually taken until attackers start becoming successful," Marshall said. "Until TJX, people didn't start locking down their wireless networks. If Heartland and Hannaford are not a wake-up call [for Web application security], I wonder what is."

According to Wysopal and others, there are several measures companies can take to limit their exposure to SQL injection vulnerabilities. One involves a code review of all Web applications to identify input validation errors. Companies need to identify such coding flaws and ensure that a Web form accepts only legitimate input. Web application firewalls can also be useful in protecting against SQL injection attacks, though they must be tuned properly to automatically block malicious traffic while permitting legitimate traffic to get through.

Hardening the underlying database and ensuring that the Web application connecting to it has limited access are also helpful in fending off attacks, Wysopal said.

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