Thomas Countz

Peel - Day 3 - SQL Injection Vulnerability

SQL Injection Vulnerability

class Book
  def update(title: nil, author: nil, isbn: nil)
    title = title || @title
    author = author || @author
    isbn = isbn || @isbn
-"books.db").execute <<-SQL
-      UPDATE books  
-      SET title = '#{title}', author = '#{author}', isbn = '#{isbn}'
-      WHERE id = #{@id};
+      "UPDATE books  
+      SET title = ?, author = ?, isbn = ?
+      WHERE id = ?;",
+      [title, author, isbn, @id]
+    ) @id, title: title, author: author, isbn: isbn)


Small update of the Book#update() method. The original version of this method used string interpolation in order to set the values for title, author, isbn, and id.

I did this because, the query is just a string and I needed that string to be “filled out” at runtime, dynamically. However, this has serious security implications. This is a prime example of how easy it is to introduce an SQL injection vulnerability.

A SQL injection attack consists of insertion or “injection” of a SQL query via the input data from the client to the application.

The Attack

Our innocent code gets a book from the database, using the Book#find() method:

book = Book.find(1)
#=> #<Book:0x007fc3c00f9160 @author="Metz, Sandi", @id=1, @isbn="0115501237044", @title="Practical Object-Oriented Design in Ruby">

When we want to update our book, we call book.update(), with the parameters we want to update. In this case, we update the title:

book.update(title: "POODR")
#=> #<Book:0x007fc34ee1160 @author="Metz, Sandi", @id=1, @isbn="0115501237044", @title="POODR">

This is the expected behavior.

Next, to visualize what an attack looks like, lets remind ourselves of the method signature and SQL query:

def update(title: nil, author: nil, isbn: nil)
	"UPDATE books  
	SET title = '#{title}', author = '#{author}', isbn = '#{isbn}'
	WHERE id = #{@id};"

Let’s consider what would happen to our query if we called the .update() method like this:

book.update(title: "PWNED' WHERE id = 2/*")

If we called our method like that, our query would look like this:

UPDATE books 
SET title = 'PWNED' WHERE id = 2/*, author = 'Metz, Sandi', isbn = '0115501237044' 
WHERE id = 1;

Notice that SQLite will consider everything after /* to be a comment, so if we strip that away, we’re left with:

UPDATE books
SET title = 'PWNED'
WHERE id = 2;

What happened? Even though we were working with an Active Record object for a book row where id = 1, our interpolated string allowed us to effectively change the original query in order to update a different row in our database, WHERE id = 2 in our case.

We can see the effect of our SQL injection by querying for the book with and id = 2

#=> #<Book:0x007fc3c20dd120 @author="Martin, Robert C.", @id=2, @isbn="0187123641198", @title="PWNED">

This is not the intended use of our client code, but once it’s out there, we can’t protect against this kind of attack. Imagine if we were updating a user password instead of a book title!

The Fix

The fix is to use parameterized queries.

The use of prepared statements with variable binding (aka parameterized queries) is how all developers should first be taught how to write database queries. They are simple to write, and easier to understand than dynamic queries. Parameterized queries force the developer to first define all the SQL code, and then pass in each parameter to the query later. This coding style allows the database to distinguish between code and data, regardless of what user input is supplied.


The SQLite3 gem makes using these types of statements, really easy. We replace the interpolated code with a ?, and provide a list of arguments that will be used to fill in those blanks, later:

def update(title: nil, author: nil, isbn: nil)
    "UPDATE books SET title = ?, author = ?, isbn = ? WHERE id = ?",
      [title, author, isbn, @id]

In our case, it’s as simple as passing in a second argument to #execute(). Let’s looks at that function definition:

def execute(sql, bind_vars = [], *args, &block)

You can read more about Binding Variables in SQLite, but essentially, the abstraction in the SQLite3 gem does exactly what you imagine: replace each, ?, with the corresponding value in the bind_var array, based on order.

If we try to do the same SQL injection now, we end up with this:

book.update(title: "PWNED' WHERE id = 2/*")
#<Book:0x007fc3c22ff638 @author="Metz, Sandi", @id=1, @isbn="0115501237044", @title="PWNED' WHERE id = 2/*">

Instead of effecting any other rows in our database, the prepared statement escaped any characters which could otherwise be interpreted as SQL syntax.

· project, peel, ruby, database, sql