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Risk

4/15/2010
02:45 PM
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Databases At Risk Of Man-In-The-Middle Attacks

Without encryption of database traffic, Oracle and other databases face man-in-the-middle attack threats

A set of Oracle vulnerabilities that makes the platform vulnerable to man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks highlights the weaknesses of database protocols and serves as a warning to organizations to take a look at how they handle their database traffic.

At Black Hat Europe today, researchers Steve Ocepek and Wendel Henrique of Trustwave's SpiderLabs security team demonstrated how attackers can take advantage of database information that is often transmitted in clear text by using common MITM attacks to downgrade the authentication mechanism, obtain leaked operating system (OS) credentials, and hijack sessions to issue their own queries. Ocepek and Henrique demonstrated the approach using a new proof-of-concept tool they developed, called thicknet.

According to Henrique, the lessons that should be gained from their findings aren't limited in scope to the Oracle world.

"Takeover on a live session is applicable to other databases," Henrique says. "We [discussed] this during our presentation today and believe we can extend the support of our tool, thicknet, to abuse other databases in the future."

While some experts, such as Alexander Kornbrust, CEO of Red-Database-Security GmbH, believe there are still bigger security problems with the way enterprises handle their databases, most agree that Ocepek and Henrique's work offers good, overarching lessons on future database attacks.

"Attackers normally are lazy and go the easy way. So why spend time with man-in-the-middle attacks if the password of the application user is the user name itself? Weak passwords are still problem No. 1 in my experience in the real world," Kornbrust says. "But nowadays even databases are becoming more and more secure, so an attacker has to think about new ways. Man-in-the-middle attacks are still a relative easy way, so this will become more common in the future."

MITM attacks on databases are made possible by the fact that many enterprises simply are not as vigilant with encryption of database traffic as they are for other applications.

"While many companies implement encryption and SSL for Web applications, they often forget about the database traffic, which holds information just as critical as what you would find within Web applications," Henrique says. "Even if a protocol is widely used and proprietary, like Oracle TNS/NET8, it doesn't mean it's secure by default -- we should not blindly trust it."

While the findings presented today are new, they highlight an old problem, says Brian Contos, chief security strategist for Imperva. "Database protocols have long been an attack vector across many database platforms," he says. "They are poorly documented, often change, and are generally not well understood."

According to Kornbrust, many organizations fail to encrypt database traffic due to the cost. "Research in this area is important, and companies should think about encryption in their database traffic," he says. "In the Oracle world, encryption is easy to implement. The only problem and the main reason why customers are not using it is the price -- it is too expensive for most customers."

But as Henrique points out, the alternative could be more costly if an attacker is successful in hijacking sessions and breaching data.

"While most of the databases offer an encryption solution, only a few customers apply it for different reasons, like overhead on the network or because it may be sold separately," he says. "Whether it's a plain-text protocol or not, the risk of leaving it unencrypted and not enforcing the proper mitigations against man-in-the-middle attacks on a network may result in the hijacking of sessions and access to resources with the privileges of an authenticated user."

According to Henrique, encryption is no panacea. But it does a lot to increase the difficulty of attacking a database and force attackers to look for other ways in.

"While we acknowledge that encryption is not the solution to every security problem, it does raise the bar greatly in terms of the time and effort necessary to manipulate a protocol," Henrique says. "Nothing is unbreakable, but robust encryption algorithms create something equally daunting to an attacker -- more work."

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