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Prevent SQL Injection With SQL Builders Like jOOQ

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Prevent SQL Injection With SQL Builders Like jOOQ

As long as we allow ourselves to write string-based dynamic SQL embedded in other programming languages like Java, we will have a certain risk of being vulnerable to SQL injection.

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As long as we allow ourselves to write string-based dynamic SQL embedded in other programming languages like Java, we will have a certain risk of being vulnerable to SQL injection. That’s a fact. Don’t believe it? Check out this website exposing all vulnerabilities on Stack Overflow for PHP questions: https://laurent22.github.io/so-injections

In a previous blog post, I’ve shown how fatal such a single vulnerability can be, if discovered. A lot of blog posts out there warn about the potential of attackers injecting a DROP DATABASE statement.

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Also, everyone knows this famous xkcd: https://xkcd.com/327

But in my opinion, a much more important threat is not immediate damage to your system, but data leakage. Using tools like sqlmap, every script kiddie can download your credit card information and other sensitive data from your database.

The Best Remedy: Avoid String-Based Embedded SQL

The best remedy is to always avoid string-based embedded SQL, whenever you can. I.e. try not to do things like this too often:

try (PreparedStatement s = c.prepareStatement(
    "SELECT first_name, last_name "
  + "FROM users "
  + "WHERE user_id = ? ")) {

    s.setInt(1, userId);
    try (ResultSet rs = s.executeQuery()) {
        ...
    }
}

Sure, there is currently nothing wrong with the above Java code. There is no vulnerability as we’re using a bind variable. But the risk of some developer not paying attention and accidentally adding a vulnerability when adding another predicate is too high.

Fine, so we’re not using string-based embedded SQL. But what are the alternatives?

Use a Query DSL Like jOOQ to Build Your Dynamic SQL

APIs like jOOQ help you build SQL statements in a type safe, composable way as if the Java language actually understood SQL. The previous JDBC prepared statement now translates to the following:

Result<?> result =
ctx.select(USERS.FIRST_NAME, USERS.LAST_NAME)
   .from(USERS)
   // Bind variable embedded in statement
   .where(USERS.USER_ID.eq(userId))
   .fetch();

In jOOQ, the underlying JDBC PreparedStatement is created transparently and the userId bind variable is placed right in the middle of the statement so you don’t have to worry about the boring details. There’s no way you can have any accidental SQL injection vulnerability in such jOOQ API calls because every SQL clause and expression is part of an expression tree that is managed by jOOQ.

And what’s best: The Java compiler can now type check your SQL statement to a certain degree. This is a huge benefit in terms of productivity and code quality.

Of course, SQL builders aren’t a perfect shield for SQL injection, as they usually expose some API to insert custom SQL strings. For instance, in jOOQ, you can write:

Result<?> result =
ctx.select(USERS.FIRST_NAME, USERS.LAST_NAME)
   .from(USERS)
   // Bind variable embedded in "plain SQL" string
   .where("user_id = ?", userId)
   .fetch();

This alternative API usage is just as convenient as the previous one. The bind variable is located right where it is needed (not applied later on a PreparedStatement), but of course, this is again string-based embedded SQL, which is potentially vulnerable if you get it wrong.

The important thing here is that the string-based method is the exception, which is used only very rarely when you need a very advanced SQL feature that is not supported by jOOQ. By default, you’re using the “save” approach without strings. And since jOOQ 3.9, you can also add a type checker that generates a compilation warning or error as soon as you’re using jOOQ’s “plain SQL” API. Read more about that here:
JSR-308 and the Checker Framework Add Even More Typesafety to jOOQ 3.9

Use Views and Stored Procedures

The safest and least intrusive way to prevent such problems, of course, is not to use embedded SQL at all, but to use views and/or stored procedures instead. By moving and storing the SQL statements into the database, you get a few advantages in addition to the lack of SQLi vulnerability:

  • The database can type-check your statement in its entirety
  • You can easily reuse a statement in different applications, e.g. not all written in Java
  • You could even revoke grants to the underlying tables and grant access only to these views and stored procedures, which adds another layer of security to your system

If you’re writing PL/SQL in Oracle, the previous statement would be transformed to something like this:

FOR rec IN (
  SELECT first_name, last_name
  FROM users
  -- Bind variable again embedded in SQL statement
  WHERE user_id = l_user_id
) LOOP
  ...
END LOOP;

Just like with jOOQ, you can easily embed the SQL statement in the “host language”, except that this time, it isn’t Java but PL/SQL. There’s absolutely no way the above statement will ever be vulnerable to SQL injection, as the statement isn’t even a dynamic SQL statement anymore.

Again, you can write dynamic SQL also in PL/SQL (or other database’s stored procedure languages), e.g. by using EXECUTE IMMEDIATE, but the important thing is again that dynamic, string-based, embedded SQL is the exception not the default. That’s the important thing here!

Now, if you do decide to use stored procedures, then jOOQ is again here to help you, as you can easily call that procedure from jOOQ, again in a type safe way. More about that in this blog post:
Painless Access from Java to PL/SQL Procedures with jOOQ

Beware! SQL Isn't the Only Language Vulnerable to Injection

Vlad Mihalcea displayed an equally important threat to JPA-based applications. Scroll down his blog post to find him mentioning JPQL injection:

A beginner’s guide to SQL injection and how you should prevent it.

Yes, if you’re doing something silly as:

public List<Post> getPostsByTitle(String title) {
    return doInJPA(entityManager -> {
        return entityManager.createQuery(
            "select p " +
            "from Post p " +
            "where" +
            "   p.title = '" + title + "'", Post.class)
        .getResultList();
    });
}

… then an attacker can inject any sort of JPQL code into the title variable. The possibilities are a bit more limited than with SQL injection, but it is still perfectly possible to read and dump the entire database (including credit card information, remember?) from such a vulnerability.

Again, if you’re doing this quite often, you should consider switching to a more type safe way to write JPQL (e.g. using the the infamous Criteria API), or again switch to SQL and jOOQ.

Read Vlad’s post for more details: A beginner’s guide to SQL injection and how you should prevent it.

Conclusion

There are many external DSLs, like SQL, JPQL, XPath, regular expressions, and what not. Some of them are extremely powerful and they’re used to operate on sensitive data. Which means that if you leak control of the language outside of your application, you’re very vulnerable.

Vulnerability mostly happens when you embed those external DSLs into Java in a string-based form. The best remedies are:

  • Use an internal DSL that models the external DSL instead
  • Keep the external DSL external, e.g. by using views and stored procedures

Both of these approaches work because they both avoid strings.

Leveraging Humans to Get the Most Out of Tools

Topics:
strings ,sql injection ,security ,sql builders

Published at DZone with permission of Lukas Eder, DZone MVB. See the original article here.

Opinions expressed by DZone contributors are their own.

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