The biggest threat to modern web applications is someone who exhibits Advanced Persistent Ignorance. Developers rely on all sorts of APIs to build complex software. This one makes code insecure by default. API is the willful disregard of simple, established security designs.

First, we must step back into history to establish a departure point for ignorance. This is just one of many. Almost seven years ago on July 13, 2004 PHP 5.0.0 was officially released. Importantly, it included this note:

A new MySQL extension named MySQLi for developers using MySQL 4.1 and later. This new extension includes an object-oriented interface in addition to a traditional interface; as well as support for many of MySQL’s new features, such as prepared statements.

Of course, any new feature can be expected to have bugs and implementation issues. Even with an assumption that serious bugs would take a year to be worked out, that means PHP has had a secure database query mechanism for the past six years.1

The first OWASP Top 10 list from 2004 mentioned prepared statements as a countermeasure.2 Along with PHP and MySQL, .NET and Java supported these, as did Perl (before its popularity was subsumed by buzzword-building Python and Ruby On Rails). In fact, PHP and MySQL trailed other languages and databases in their support for prepared statements.

SQL injection itself predates the first OWASP Top 10 list by several years. One of the first summations of the general class of injection attacks was the 1999 Phrack article, Perl CGI problems. SQL injection was simply a specialization of these problems to database queries.

So, we’ve established the age of injection attacks at over a dozen years old and reliable countermeasures at least six years old. These are geologic timescales for the Internet.

There’s no excuse for SQL injection vulnerabilities to exist in 2011.

It’s not a forgivable coding mistake anymore. Coding mistakes most often imply implementation errors – bugs due to typos, forgetfulness, or syntax. Modern SQL injection vulns are a sign of bad design. For six years, prepared statements have offered a means of establishing a fundamentally secure design for database queries. It takes actual effort to make them insecure. SQL injection attacks could still happen against a prepared statement, but only due to egregiously poor code that shouldn’t pass a basic review. (Yes, yes, stored procedures can be broken, too. String concatenation happens all over the place. Never the less, writing an insecure stored procedure or prepared statement should be more difficult than writing an insecure raw SQL statement.)

Maybe one of the two billion PHP hobby projects on Sourceforge could be expected to still have these vulns, but not real web sites. And, please, never in sites for security firms. Let’s review the previous few months:

The list may seem meager, but there’s an abundane of sites that have had SQL injection vulns. We just don’t have a crowdsourced equivalent for it like tracks cross-site scripting.

XSS is a little more forgivable, though no less embarrassing. HTML injection flaws continue to plague sites because of implementation bugs. There’s no equivalent of the prepared statement for building HTML or HTML snippets. This is why the vuln remains so pervasive: No one has figured out the secure, reliable, and fast way to build HTML with user-supplied data. This doesn’t imply that attempting to do so is a hopeless cause. On the contrary, JavaScript libraries can reduce these problems significantly.

For all the articles, lists, and books published on SQL injection one must assume that developers are being persistently ignorant of security concepts to such a degree that five years from now we may hear yet again of a database hack that disclosed unencrypted passwords.

If you’re going to use performance as an excuse for avoiding prepared statements then you either haven’t bothered to measure the impact, you haven’t understood how to scale web architectures, and you might as well turn off HTTPS for the login page so you can get more users logging in per second. If you have other excuses for avoiding database security, ask yourself if it takes longer to write a ranting rebuttal or a wrapper for secure database queries.

There may in fact be hope for the future. The rush to scaleability and the pious invocation of “cloud” has created a new beast of NoSQL datastores. These NoSQL datastores typically just have key-value pairs with grammars that aren’t so easily corrupted by a stray apostrophe or semi-colon in the way that traditional SQL can be corrupted. Who knows, maybe security conferences will finally do away with presentations on yet another SQL injection exploit and find someone with a novel, new NoSQL Injection vulnerability.

Advanced Persistent Ignorance isn’t limited to SQL injection vulnerabilities. It has just spectacularly manifested itself in them. There are many unsolved problems in information security, but there are also many mostly-solved problems. Big unsolved problems in web security are password resets (overwhelmingly relying on email) and using static credit card numbers to purchase items.

SQL injection countermeasures are an example of a mostly-solved problem. Using prepared statements isn’t 100% secure, but it makes a significant improvement. User authentication and password storage is another area of web security rife with errors. Adopting a solution like OpenID can reduce the burden of security around authentication. As with all things crypto-related, using well-maintained libraries and system calls are far superior to writing your own hash function or encryption scheme.

Excuses that prioritize security last in a web site design miss the point that not all security has to be hard. Nor does it have to impede usability or speed of development. Crypto and JavaScript libraries provide high-quality code primitives to build sites. Simple education about current development practices goes just as far. Sometimes the state of the art is actually several years old – because it’s been proven to work.

The antidote to API is the continuous acquisition of knowledge and experience. Yes, you can have your cake and eat it, too.

  1. MySQL introduced support for prepared statements in version 4.1, which was first released April 3, 2003.