Whitepaper : The SQL Server Security Threat – It’s Closer Than You Think


This whitepaper discusses the information security and compliance issues associated with Microsoft SQL Server database systems. Whether you’re a CSO, IT manager, internal auditor, or database administrator, read on. You’ll learn about the database security threat, how compliance fits into the overall picture, and what you need to be doing to minimize your business risks.

Today, business is about data. Database systems and the elements they store are arguably the most valuable assets in any given enterprise. Not only are business executives and IT leaders responsible for doing what’s right to protect the business’ best interest, they’re obligated to comply with the seemingly endless list of industry and government-imposed regulations.

As we’ve see over the past decade, database-related security breaches can’t be taken lightly. One of the greatest threats to databases is insiders with ill-intent. Computer networks have become so complex that it’s easy for database administrators and IT managers to overlook database security gaps that are easily exploited without anyone ever knowing about it. Security weaknesses that would’ve been considered obvious and relatively simple to fix not that long ago are now the
Achilles heel of modern business.

These challenges have created an environment where not only a lot can go wrong but there’s also much to lose. This is especially true when you don’t have the proper culture, business and technical controls and tools to ensure database security and compliance are kept in check. All it takes is one oversight, misstep or bad choice by a malicious insider and you’ve got a database security breach on your hands that you and your business colleagues may not be prepared to take on.

What Your Business is Up Against

Compliance is often seen in a negative light. It’s not just big government agencies and industry bodies trying to tell executives how to run their businesses. The reality is that information security and privacy-related regulations have been put in place because so many business owners and managers ignored the generally-accepted practices for keeping their information systems in check.

Despite all the compliance regulations and increased awareness, SQL Server systems are often wide open for attack. They’re one of the biggest targets for the bad guys because, as a bank robber will tell you, that’s where the money is. Today’s business reality is showing us that you can be compliant with any set of regulations at any given time yet a single misstep or exploit of a database system can take your entire business out of compliance.

Staying on top of all the known – and yet to be discovered – SQL Server weaknesses can be difficult enough. Throw in various regulations such as the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS), Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act into the mix and you’ve got yourself a seemingly insurmountable business challenge.

Generally speaking, compliance is not as difficult as it may seem. Look closely at each of these regulations. You’ll see that they’re nothing more than a set of information security best practices designed to help minimize business risks. They help ensure information systems availability and safeguard the confidentiality and integrity of sensitive information. In order to determine where you need to focus your compliance efforts you have to consider the specifics of each regulation including:

1. What’s the general goal of the regulation?
2. What unique policies and technical controls are required to achieve compliance?
3. What are the regulators or auditors ultimately going to expect of your business?

Going beyond these government and industry regulations, you also need to look at specific contracts and service level agreements that your business is bound to. These are not specific “compliance” requirements but they’re still commitments the business has made to ensure information security and privacy.

Finally, it’s people that are at the core of database compliance and information security. Understanding and cooperation on the part of your core users, management, IT and information security staff and even business partners are critical. The last thing you need is for compliance and security to be mired in people problems. It can happen. So, you have to be savvy about balancing everything for the greater good of the business.

The DBA’s Role in Complaince

Database administrators (DBAs) play a critical role in ensuring that database security is kept in check and related business risks are minimized. If you’re currently working in this role or managing someone who is, it’s important to understand what’s required to pull everything together for reasonable SQL Server security and compliance.

There are numerous factors that determine how you manage database-related compliance and security initiatives including: the size of your business, the number of database systems that fall within the scope, and your overall information systems complexity. Even the industry in which your business operates can shape the challenges and necessary approaches. For example, DBAs working in the financial industry will likely have more of a compliance burden than DBAs working in manufacturing. Every industry is different and every business has its own unique needs.

All things considered, the time and effort required to manage database security and compliance can easily add up to be a full-time job. The problem is that time is the scarcest resource in IT.

IT professionals are being pulled in multiple directions all the time. This can result in just the opposite of the desired outcome for database security and compliance. DBAs in particular are often putting out fires to “keep the joint running” and very little time is left for higher-level work such as addressing database security and compliance at the strategic level of the business.

Businesses that force more compliance-related job duties on existing DBAs that are already stretched thin will likely set everyone up for failure. It’s a basic time management principle – if you’re going to take on something new, you’ve got to be prepared to stop doing something else.

Given what’s at stake, as long as you can see the bigger picture of database security and overall information risk management and take the appropriate steps toward gaining control over time, you’ll do fine. It’s the managers and DBAs who choose to ignore the obvious that end up creating more problems for their businesses than they solve.

The key with compliance is that you have a choice in the matter. Compliance is not black-and-white. From initial risk assessment to ongoing visibility and control, there are infinite shades of gray and you get to choose how you approach each area in your business. The important thing is to have compliance on your radar and understand that every decision you make around SQL Server and database management will
ultimately impact compliance in your business.

Understanding the Database Security Threat

In order to truly manage database-related risks, you’ve got to understand what you’re up against. The media has portrayed the threat to be a young punk trying to crack into your network in the middle of the night. But that’s not necessarily true, especially when it comes to database hacking. Instead, there are targeted attacks – often government supported – that are carried out via social engineering. A few well-placed phishing emails combined with some gullible users is all it takes for an outside entity to penetrate your network and ultimately access critical databases that were assumed to be locked down from external attack. The same goes for unsecured Web applications that allow SQL injection – something that the Trustwave SpiderLabs Global Security Report 2011 found to be the greatest threat.

Looking at this pragmatically, there’s just as much of a threat on the inside of your network. In fact, one of the greatest threats to your critical databases is likely a trusted insider, or mole, working in your environment this very moment. According to the Ponemon Institute Second Annual Cost of Cyber Crime Study, insiders contribute to the most costly cyber crimes. The study also found that while insider attacks make up only 30% of attacks, on average, they can take more than 45 days to contain resulting in an annualized cost of $105,352.

But why would insiders raid your databases? Simply put: because they can. They may be curious. They may have a vendetta for someone in management. They may even be hurting financially at home and see it as the only way out. Regardless, employees, contractors, and other users in your environment often have full, unfettered access to any database system they want. They have a network connection. They have
privileged accounts. They even have your trust. People with ill intent know that the odds of getting caught are in their favor. They know that their “attacks” will likely go unnoticed. Even if something turns up, they know they’ll be long gone and the business will have a hard time piecing together the steps that led up to the breach.

The real kicker is just how easy it is to exploit any given SQL Server environment. Many – arguably most – SQL Server security weaknesses are low-hanging fruit that require little to no technical skills to exploit. Turning seemingly benign weaknesses into serious compliance violations and business risks only takes a matter of minutes.

Improperly secured and managed SQL Server systems create enormous business risks – these are issues you might not discover until it’s too late such as:

»» Unsecured SQL Server systems placed on the network by random employees that no one knows about or that have been around so long they’ve been forgotten – something easily discovered using a free tool
such as SQLPing
»» Weak or blank passwords on privileged accounts providing full database access to anyone that downloads, installs, and runs SQL Server Management Studio Express
»» Orphaned and backdoor user accounts that aren’t being monitored
»» Missing SQL Server patches that can be scanned for and exploited using a free tool such as Metasploit to provide full remote access to anyone on the network
»» Unsecured development databases that house production data
»» Database backups that aren’t encrypted or encrypted with the key stored directly on the tape or within the backup file – something that exposes your databases to external parties when a backup tape is lost
»» Data that’s been extracted from the database and placed on unsecured network shares or unencrypted laptops or external hard drives – something that exposes your databases to external parties when a
laptop or drive is stolen

In practically every internal network security assessment I perform I find these database security weaknesses. An insider exploiting just one of these issues can lead to complete database exposure and compliance violations that will have a lasting impact on the business.

You have to ask yourself if your business is prepared to proactively handle these situations. How are you going to answer to your board, your shareholders, or even business partners and customers when one
or more of these weaknesses is exploited and something goes awry in database land?

What You Can Do to Minimize Database Risks

You cannot secure what you don’t acknowledge. Yet, that’s the mode of operation for many businesses when it comes to keeping the database environment in check. The assumption is that the four walls of your building will keep critical databases safe from harm. This is a dangerous mindset. If your databases are out of sight and out of mind, the same will likely hold true for the threats your business faces. That’s when it’s easiest to get bitten and most definitely when it will hurt the most. You’ve got to understand the weaknesses and then take the appropriate steps to do something about them. The higher-level process goes like this:


Getting more specific, a detailed information risk management program consists of:

1. An initial risk analysis to determine where you need to focus your efforts
2. Documenting the necessary policies, supporting procedures and contingency plans
3. Use of technical controls to help enforce your policies wherever possible
4. Open communication between IT and management on what’s working and what’s not
5. Setting users’ expectations regarding what they should and should not do
6. Periodic and consistent checks for new threats, vulnerabilities and risks

An important factor in minimizing database security risks is to not get caught up in all the regulatory minutiae and address every requirement in a standalone fashion. Instead, you can address most of the required regulations across the board at the same time. Again, the big regulations like PCI DSS and HIPAA/HITECH are saying the same basic things. If you want to be more efficient, then it’s important to address database security – and security overall – from an information risk management

You can analyze each regulation and map all the requirements on your own or you can use third party resources such as the Unified Compliance Framework (www. unifiedcompliance.com) where other people have already taken the pain out of the process for you. The important thing is to make sure you’re working towards addressing your database security risks at the highest level possible. Anything less and you’re likely just spinning your wheels and driving yourself crazy in the process.

IT is constantly in a state of flux. Being proactive with all the changes taking place in any given environment is one of the biggest challenges that businesses face. There’s not a simple solution for getting your database environment under control other than the fact that you’re going to have to be methodical and concise in your efforts. Simply putting this control or that control in place to merely please an auditor or complete a checkbox and assuming all will be well moving forward won’t cut it.

A key aspect of database security and compliance is having the proper visibility. You’re going to have to get the proper insight needed to make good decisions. Insight into what’s taking place at any given time will help you stay on top of the threats and allow you to respond in a more mature and professional manner when something goes awry. You’ll also be able to prove your security or compliance status at any given time – something your auditors will love.

Good visibility requires good tools. I have yet to see any business that’s able to effectively manage database security risks without the proper tools. Manual processes for managing database security are not only time-consuming; they’re also highly-inaccurate. Given your limited time and resources, you can’t afford to assume that you have all the right information when you need it.

The final tie-in that will help bring database security and compliance full circle is reporting. Once the basic database controls are in place, your long-term success will depend on how well you stay on top of your security and compliance related reporting. Some reporting will be for your own purposes such as access management, security standards, and system maintenance. Other reporting will be done for the benefit of your internal auditors, regulators, and executive management. Again, good tools play an important role.

In the end, you want to be able to prove where things stand at any given point. Being able to demonstrate the current security posture of your database environment will help you stay on top of compliance requirements, please your auditors and most importantly, keep your database-related risks to a minimum.

To Comply or Not to Comply: That is the Question.

Compliance is not an option. Many business managers and IT staff often treat it that way but that’s a risky approach. Like it or not, compliance as we know it isn’t going away. In fact, given the transformation taking place in IT including the dependence on electronic information and insider threats looking to take things down, the traditional compliance requirements we’ve known will only grow more complex.

Auditors and regulators have a unified voice and will go to great lengths to ensure that management understands the compliance requirements of the business. The same auditors and regulators will also point out the consequences of security breaches and the resulting non-compliance such as business disruption, lost revenue, fines, negative media coverage, and damage to your brand.

As real as they are, I’ve found that management often takes these consequences with a grain of salt – sometimes as veiled threats – that don’t really inspire action. Another way you can put it to management is to talk in terms of cost. According to the Ponemon Institute’s 2011 study The True Cost of Compliance, the cost of noncompliance was, on average, 2.65 times the cost of compliance. So merely avoiding compliance can be a bad financial decision. It’s ultimately up to management to make this call, but it’s your responsibility to get the message across that database security is not something to be taken lightly.

When communicating your message, focus on the business aspects of database security and compliance. For most businesses, information integrity and system availability are key drivers. Find out ways you can talk about those areas and demonstrate their value to the business’s bottom line.

The mere act of working together with IT, compliance and security staff to come up with “how” things can be done rather than “No, that can’t be done” is key.

An important fact to keep in mind – something the regulators and auditors won’t tell you – is that a “breach” doesn’t always mean exposure. Also, it’s important to remember that compliance is not all about protecting personally-identifiable information (PII). Instead, it’s about protecting any type of information that contributes to the business’s fiduciary responsibilities including financial reporting information for SOX compliance. Obviously, intellectual property in the traditional sense is not covered by these regulations but it’d certainly behoove you to bring all sensitive and valuable information under your risk management umbrella.

In the end, it pays to be proactive. Wait around to address security and compliance after an incident occurs and it’ll be too little too late. As Murphy’s Law says “There’s never time to do it right but there’s always time to do it over.” Don’t fall into this trap!

Moving Forward

Manage your information risks. It’s as simple as that. Look at the entire picture. Think about everything you’re doing today regarding SQL Server security. From database access controls to software patching to audit logging to backups, everything you do counts.

Database security and compliance can seem overwhelming. If you understand what you’re up against and what there is to lose, and then you proceed getting the right people on board and acquiring good tools, you’ll no doubt be ahead of the security curve. You’ll set yourself, your users, management, and your business up for success.

As the Chinese proverb goes: dig your well before you’re thirsty. Thinking long term and preparing your business to ward off database security threats can have tremendous payoffs. It’s up to you to make things happen.

Links to Popular U.S. Compliance Regulations:

Gramm-Leach Bliley Act (GLBA):
Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act:
Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Security Rule:
Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS):
Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX):
State Breach Notification Laws:

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Kevin Beaver

Kevin Beaver, CISSP, is an independent information security consultant, author, expert witness and professional speaker with Atlanta, GA-based Principle Logic, LLC. He has over two decades of experience in IT and specializes in performing information security assessments revolving around compliance and minimizing business risks. Kevin has authored/co-authored 10 books including one of the best-selling information security books Hacking For Dummies (Wiley) as well as Implementation Strategies for Fulfilling and
Maintaining IT Compliance (Realtimepublishers.com) and The Practical Guide to HIPAA Privacy and Security Compliance (Auerbach). He is also the creator and producer of the Security On Wheels audio programs providing security learning for IT professionals on the go securityonwheels.com.

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