Top Database Security Threats and How to Mitigate Them

By Roy Maurer Jul 30, 2015
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Every day, hackers unleash attacks designed to steal confidential data, and an organization’s database servers are often the primary targets of these attacks. Databases are one of the most compromised assets according to the 2015 Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report.

“The reason databases are targeted so often is quite simple—they are at the heart of any organization, storing customer records and other confidential business data,” said Morgan Gerhart, vice president of product marketing at cybersecurity firm Imperva. Organizations are not protecting these crucial assets well enough, he added.

“When hackers and malicious insiders gain access to sensitive data, they can quickly extract value, inflict damage or impact business operations. In addition to financial loss or reputation damage, breaches can result in regulatory violations, fines and legal fees,” he said.

Top Database Threats

The threats identified over the last couple of years are the same that continue to plague businesses today, according to Gerhart. The most common database threats include:

*Excessive privileges. When workers are granted default database privileges that exceed the requirements of their job functions, these privileges can be abused, Gerhart said. “For example, a bank employee whose job requires the ability to change only account holder contact information may take advantage of excessive database privileges and increase the account balance of a colleague’s savings account.” Further, some companies fail to update access privileges for employees who change roles within an organization or leave altogether.

*Legitimate privilege abuse. Users may abuse legitimate database privileges for unauthorized purposes, Gerhart said.

*Database injection attacks. The two major types of database injection attacks are SQL injections that target traditional database systems and NoSQL injections that target “big data” platforms. “A crucial point to realize here is that, although it is technically true that big data solutions are impervious to SQL injection attacks because they don’t actually use any SQL-based technology, they are, in fact, still susceptible to the same fundamental class of attack,” Gerhart said. “In both types, a successful input injection attack can give an attacker unrestricted access to an entire database.”

*Malware. A perennial threat, malware is used to steal sensitive data via legitimate users using infected devices.

*Storage media exposure. Backup storage media is often completely unprotected from attack, Gerhart said. “As a result, numerous security breaches have involved the theft of database backup disks and tapes. Furthermore, failure to audit and monitor the activities of administrators who have low-level access to sensitive information can put your data at risk. Taking the appropriate measures to protect backup copies of sensitive data and monitor your most highly privileged users is not only a data security best practice, but also mandated by many regulations,” he said.

*Exploitation of vulnerable databases. It generally takes organizations months to patch databases, during which time they remain vulnerable. Attackers know how to exploit unpatched databases or databases that still have default accounts and configuration parameters. “Unfortunately, organizations often struggle to stay on top of maintaining database configurations even when patches are available. Typical issues include high workloads and mounting backlogs for the associated database administrators, complex and time-consuming requirements for testing patches, and the challenge of finding a maintenance window to take down and work on what is often classified as a business-critical system,” Gerhart said.

*Unmanaged sensitive data. Many companies struggle to maintain an accurate inventory of their databases and the critical data objects contained within them. “Forgotten databases may contain sensitive information, and new databases can emerge without visibility to the security team. Sensitive data in these databases will be exposed to threats if the required controls and permissions are not implemented,” he said.

*The human factor. The root cause for 30 percent of data breach incidents is human negligence, according to the Ponemon Institute Cost of Data Breach Study. “Often this is due to the lack of expertise required to implement security controls, enforce policies or conduct incident response processes,” Gerhart said.

Multilayered Security Solutions

A defensive matrix of best practices and internal controls is needed to properly protect databases, according to Imperva. This matrix includes:

  • Assessing for any database vulnerabilities, identifying compromised endpoints and classifying sensitive data.
  • Managing user access rights and removing excessive privileges and dormant users.
  • Monitoring all database access activity and usage patterns in real time to detect data leakage, unauthorized SQL and big data transactions, and protocol and system attacks.
  • Blocking malicious web requests.
  • Automating auditing with a database auditing and protection platform.
  • Archiving external data and encrypting databases.
  • Training employees on risk-mitigation techniques including how to recognize common cyberthreats such as a spear-phishing attack, best practices around Internet and e-mail usage, and password management. “Failure to enforce training and create a security-conscious work culture increases the chances of a security breach,” Gerhart said.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him @SHRMRoy

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