In most cases, computer programs, websites, and apps use databases to securely manage and store data. Examples of data stored in these databases include product information on websites, data on user behavior, or log-in credentials.
The programming language SQL (Structured Query Language) has become the standard among programmers for the provision and management of these various forms of information in database systems.
And you guessed it: SQL databases are a pretty attractive target for hackers who focus their cyberonslaughts on them using SQL injection attacks to carry out extensive data theft or manipulation.
Read on to learn what SQL injection attacks are, how SQL injection attacks work, and what you can do to protect yourself.
What is SQL injection?
The independent Open Web Application Security Project / OWASP Foundation, the world’s biggest foundation of its kind focusing on software security, regularly lists SQL injection attacks among the top 10 of cyberattacks.
The term SQL injection encapsulates exactly what it is: The injection of code into Structured Query Language. It’s not exactly self-explanatory, but you can at least get an idea of what’s at stake — namely the unauthorized infiltration of request or query codes into database systems.
Before we explain in more detail how an SQL injection attack works, let’s first take a look at what SQL actually means.
What’s behind the term SQL?
The very common programming language SQL is used to organize the interaction or communication between relational databases — which of course are on SQL servers.
SQL has become the standard because it provides programmers with a flexible and versatile programming language that offers them many ways to customize their database systems.
Relational database management systems are also among the most popular in the IT industry because they are considered very reliable and help to avoid inconsistencies in the data records. Copying is also pointless because the SQL codes used in these database systems cannot simply be pasted into other databases. This plays a major role from a security perspective.
For example, if you click a product in a web shop, a request is made in the background to the web shop operator’s server and in doing so to the database in which the information about the product is stored. The database language SQL is used here, which returns the results to the web shop as a search result when processing the request.
For these requests to correspond with the databases at all — and for the product to be displayed to you — programmers define SQL commands that govern the request and query tasks within the system at the SQL interfaces.
Are SQL-based database systems vulnerable?
It goes without saying that website and app operators take the greatest possible security precautions when designing the request and query codes and interfaces, and the SQL servers themselves also meet the highest security standards.
However, when producing the often very extensive source code, which is written using a programming language usually as plain text, tiny inaccuracies are always going to slip in.
At first glance, these inaccuracies or script errors in the source code usually have no impact on the functioning of the defined requests and queries — but cyberscammers can quickly find errors in the source code of SQL-based database systems. And, of course, theses are just what hackers are waiting for.
How does an SQL injection attack work?
SQL injection attacks are a type of cyberattack where hackers aim to inject their own code into a website, app, or even a program.
So if cybercriminals find even the tiniest script errors or inaccuracies in the source code of SQL-based database systems, it’s like an open door. Because they are then able to uncover vulnerabilities in programs as well as company, bank, or government agency websites and apps, and inject their own code.
In most cases, an SQL injection attack exploits a vulnerability that can arise if the connection between a web application and the databases is incorrectly configured.
And codes injected at this connection point can do quite a lot of harm, such as bypassing the log-in function and the associated authentication process or spying on other data.
Once hackers have gained access to an SQL-based database system via a small vulnerability, it’s also easy for them to access the databases in which the really sensitive data is kept. To give you an example, here are two possible scenarios of how an SQL injection attack might start in the first place.
SQL injection attacks and user data
Very often, cybercriminals try to perform an SQL injection attack based on user input, such as when we log in to a website, write a review, or use the search function. If the corresponding website does not have sufficient input cleaning in the corresponding scripts, it’s easy for hackers to inject their codes at this very point.
Once the hackers inject their code into website operators’ databases, the effects can be devastating. For example, they could carry out transactions at our bank on our behalf or sell stolen data on a wide scale on the darknet.
For us as users, it’s virtually impossible to recognize whether faulty scripts are being used on a website we’re using or whether input cleaning is insufficient. But with the right tools, we can definitely tell if a website we use has been hacked (more on that in a bit). However, what we can say is that it’s easy for cybercriminals to initiate SQL injection attacks via input fields on web pages.
Cookies as SQL-injection triggers
Cookies are small text files that provide information such as about our website visits, how long we stay, and what we enter on them. These small text files are stored in your browser to make surfing the internet more enjoyable and convenient.
However, cybercriminals can also manipulate cookies in such a way that they transfer infected code to the website operator’s server and in doing so to the databases.
How do SQL injection attacks impact me?
SQL injection attacks are aimed primarily at banks, government agencies, research institutes, and companies, and can have devastating consequences for the organizations and companies affected.
But private individuals can also be affected — namely precisely when they use a website that has been the target of an SQL injection attack. And the impact on you as an individual can be significant.
In an SQL injection attack, hackers may first aim to capture your data and then sell it on the darknet, which is called identity theft. We’re sure you can imagine the implications of that for yourself: You’ll no longer have access to your own user accounts, and you’ll no longer be able to log into your insurance or bank accounts.
As a result, in addition to identity theft, you may suffer significant financial damage if hackers steal money from your account at a bank or other financial institution.
Thankfully, there are now also ways for you as a private individual to find out whether you might have been caught indirectly in the clutches of cybercriminals by using websites. You can use Avira Identity Assistant to check whether your email addresses or personal data have been published on the darknet.
How can I protect myself from SQL injection attacks?
SQL injection attacks are always intended to hit companies and organizations — this means you as an individual are not the intended target of cyberattacks, although the effects are sometimes devastating.
That’s why it’s very useful to find out whether you’ve been caught indirectly in the crosshairs of cybercriminals. Sometimes you don’t need to do any investigating as many website operators are pretty quick to tell you that their databases have been hacked. However, it’s far more effective to use the right tools and services that offer you some level of proactive protection against the impacts of SQL injection attacks.
Use a password manager for secure passwords
Robust passwords are crucial to your security whatever you get up to on the internet. Many trustworthy websites now ask you to create a password that’s at least eight characters long and contains special characters, numbers as well as uppercase and lowercase letters. And sometimes you’ll even be shown how secure your choice is. Of course, we don’t need to tell you that you should use different passwords for your various website log ins and accounts — and avoid dubious-looking websites like the plague.
It’s easier — and above all more secure — to use a password manager. With such tools, you simply use one complex master password then let them do all the hard work of employing their encryption technologies to create and store strong passwords for you. Think of them like a diary with a lock: Once you’ve locked it, only you can open it to view what’s inside.
In our opinion, using a password manager is a really good move to strengthen the general protection of your online activities.
And with Avira Password Manager, you only have to remember your master password. And this app can also help you use strong passwords for all your accounts — in your browsers as well as on your mobile devices. Passwords that have been used more than once or are weak are also displayed in the app and can be changed directly.
If a website you’re using has been hacked using an SQL injection attack, using the Pro version of Avira Password Manager means you can be alerted and take immediate action by changing your passwords. This means Avira Password Manager can help you minimize the impacts of an SQL injection attack.
Essential protection against the impacts of SQL injection attacks: Antivirus programs
According to Statista in the US there were 117.9 million known cases of cybercrime in 2021 alone — and those are just the ones that were reported, so the number of unreported cases will be significantly higher. And if you consider that SQL injection attacks are among the top 10 of cyberattacks, the threat situation becomes even more jaw dropping. That’s why an antivirus program is essential. But you probably knew that already anyway.
Good antivirus programs run regular checks (scans) on all your devices. That’s because in many cases we simply won’t notice right away that we may have been the victim of an SQL injection attack as a result of cybercriminals discovering vulnerabilities in the websites we use and injecting their code.
You don’t even need to spend a cent either as Avira Free Antivirus allows you to protect your devices from virus attacks, which in turn offers you better protection from the impacts of SQL injection attacks on the websites you use.