Microsoft's U.K. Web site hit by SQL injection attack

Hacker exploits programming error to link Web page to external site

A hacker successfully defaced a page on Microsoft Corp.'s U.K. Web site on Wednesday, resulting in the display of several images, including a photograph of a child waving the flag of Saudi Arabia.

Roger Halbheer, Microsoft's chief security advisor in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, said today that the security hole used in the attack has since been closed. But, he said, it was "unfortunate" that the U.K. site was vulnerable in the first place.

The hacker, who posted his name as "rEmOtEr," used a SQL injection attack to exploit a programming snafu and gain unauthorized access to a database that supports the Web site, Halbheer said. The site takes SQL queries embedded in URLs and passes them to the database, he explained. By embedding a query of an unexpected form into the address for a particular Web page, the hacker prompted the server to return error messages, Halbheer said.

From such error messages, an attacker can get an idea of how a database is structured and refine a query so that the database will process it as an instruction to insert, instead of retrieve, data. In Microsoft's case, Halbheer said, the hacker eventually found the right combination and inserted a link to an external Web site into the database.

When users accessed the Web page on Microsoft's site, the database downloaded two photos and a graphic from the external site. A screenshot of the defacement was posted on the Web site, which tracks hacked sites.

There are two ways Microsoft could have avoided this type of attack, according to Halbheer. First, the database should not have been allowed to return error messages, he said. In addition, the Web application should have validated the external URL that the hacker entered into the database and rejected it. If a programmer makes a mistake, "the bad guy can leverage it," Halbheer said.

SQL injection attacks are on the rise as attackers try to get at valuable information that is held within databases, said Paul Davie, founder and chief operating officer of Secerno Ltd., an Oxford, England-based vendor that develops technology designed to protect databases from such attacks.

"I don't think Microsoft [is] unique in this respect, and [they] shouldn't be held up as particularly slipshod," Davie said. "This could have happened to practically anybody."

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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