February 14, 2023 By Josh Nadeau 4 min read

Cyberattacks can cause immense damage to an organization’s system and have only increased in frequency over recent years. SQL injection is an especially devastating example. This form of attack involves exploiting a website or application code through the use of Structured Query Language (SQL). It is considered one of the most severe cyber threats, as it can give attackers access to sensitive data stored within databases, allows them to modify or delete data and even create new user accounts. With these tools, attackers can gain control of the entire system.

Much like other cyberattacks, malicious actors carry out SQL injection attacks in various stages across the attack life cycle. By breaking down each stage and understanding how it works, organizations can better protect themselves while also improving their overall cybersecurity posture.

Understanding the cyber kill chain of an SQL injection

The cyber kill chain of an SQL injection attack consists of seven stages. Below, we will discuss each of these stages in detail.

1. Reconnaissance

During the reconnaissance stage, attackers determine information about their targets, such as their weaknesses and vulnerabilities. This is done by gathering data from various sources, including social media accounts, public records and search engine results. Attackers may also use hacking tools like port scanners to identify open ports on a system. During an SQL injection attack specifically, attackers use a wide variety of techniques to gain access to their targets.

Knowing the target’s weaknesses helps attackers focus their efforts to launch an effective attack faster and with less effort. Understanding what types of data are stored on a system or website will determine which type of malicious code attackers use against your system. This step also allows attackers to test different attacks on small-scale targets before attempting larger ones.

2. Weaponization

The weaponization stage occurs after an attacker has identified and exploited a vulnerability in your system. These may include bugs, misconfigurations or even backdoors left open due to insecure coding practices. During this phase, the attacker will craft malicious payloads designed to gain access to sensitive information or disrupt operations. These payloads can come in many forms, including malware, scripts or other malicious code injected into vulnerable systems.

SQL attackers craft malicious payloads explicitly tailored for your environment. These payloads aim to bypass your organization’s security measures, gain access to sensitive information or disrupt operations. Attackers may use automated tools such as Metasploit to generate these payloads quickly and easily. Additionally, attackers may use automated tools and data extraction methods such as SQLmap or XSS attacks to inject these payloads into your system.

3. Delivery

The delivery stage involves sending malicious code or scripts to a targeted system to gain unauthorized access. Attackers may use phishing emails or compromised websites as vectors, such as JavaScript files or HTML documents containing malicious code. These payloads include instructions for exploiting vulnerable web applications on the target system and gaining access to privileged information.

The attacker may also use cross-site scripting (XSS) techniques to inject malicious code into web applications via client-side scripts such as JavaScript or HTML documents. This allows attackers to steal sensitive data, such as login credentials, by executing unauthorized commands on the server side of a website or application. During the delivery stages, attackers can modify existing application functions by manipulating user input before the server-side application accepts it.

4. Exploitation

Once the attacker has gained access to a company’s system, they will begin exploiting its resources. Depending on what type of information they have obtained, they may take control of entire databases or even entire networks. For example, if they have received administrative credentials with full privileges on a network, they may be able to delete files, modify settings and configurations or even delete entire databases.

The threats posed by SQL injection attacks are further exacerbated if the malicious actors can leverage stolen credentials on existing systems or databases to create new user accounts with full privileges. With unrestricted access, they can create new user accounts with privileged access rights or modify existing user accounts with elevated privileges. This type of activity could enable attackers to take complete control over an organization’s IT infrastructure and sensitive data without anyone noticing until it is too late.

5. Installation

The installation stage occurs after the attacker successfully delivers the malicious payload to its target. During this phase, attackers will typically install backdoors on vulnerable systems to maintain access and execute additional commands without authorization. Attackers can install backdoors by exploiting known vulnerabilities or by using compromised credentials. Threat actors may use these backdoors to access sensitive information such as passwords, credit card numbers or other confidential data.

Once the attacker has installed their backdoors, they will typically connect remotely and execute malicious commands without authorization. This can install additional malware, steal data, modify existing configurations or take control of an entire system. Additionally, if attackers can gain access to a system’s root directory, they can install any software of their choice and bypass most security measures.

6. Command and control

The command and control stage occurs after an attacker has gained access to a vulnerable system but has not yet launched their malicious payloads. During this stage, an attacker will establish persistent remote access and mechanisms to maintain control over the compromised system, even if it is rebooted or its connection to the internet drops out temporarily. At this point, an attacker may also collect more information or deploy additional malicious files to aid in their mission.

7. Actions on objective

The actions on objective stage is the final stage of an SQL injection attack. During this stage, attackers will typically launch their malicious payloads and take whatever actions they desire. This may include accessing sensitive data, modifying existing configurations or executing malicious commands to gain further access to other systems in the network. Attackers may use the compromised system as a launchpad to execute distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks against other networks or systems or use the system to store stolen data or host malicious code.

At this stage, attackers will likely attempt to cover their tracks by deleting any evidence of their involvement. After completing their mission, they will typically disconnect from the remote access point and erase all traces of their activities.

Knowledge is power when combatting SQL injections

SQL injection attacks are a severe threat to any organization. They can result in the theft of confidential data, damage to an organization’s IT infrastructure or even loss of revenue. However, by understanding the different stages of an SQL injection attack, organizations can take steps to mitigate these risks. In addition, implementing strong security measures such as limiting access to privileged accounts and regularly scanning for vulnerable systems can help ensure that any attempt at an SQL injection attack is thwarted before it can do any significant damage.

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