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Pro PHP Security: Preventing SQL Injection

By PHP Builder Staff
on November 1, 2006

Chapter 12 is reprinted with permission by Apress
PHP is an extremely powerful yet easy-to-learn scripting language, affording
even relatively inexperienced programmers the opportunity to create complex,
dynamic websites. It is, however, notoriously difficult to ensure privacy and
security of internet services. In this book, we will provide you with the security
background every web developer needs, along with PHP-specific knowledge
and code that you can use to protect the integrity of your own applications.
We begin with an overview of server security that shows you how to assess
privacy in a shared hosting environment, keep developers out of production
servers, maintain up-to-date software, provide encrypted channels, and control
access to your systems.
The discussion then turns to preventing common vulnerabilities in PHP
scripts. We explain how to secure your scripts against SQL injection, prevent
cross-site scripting and remote execution, and stop the hijacking of temporary
files and sessions.
The final part of the book is devoted to implementing secure applications.
You’ll learn how to verify user identities, authorize and track application use,
PHP Security
avoid data loss, safely execute high-risk system commands, and use web services
Whether you have learned just enough PHP to be dangerous, or have years
of experience dealing with security issues, this book offers a wealth of information that can help you to make your online applications more secure.
We began Part 3 with a discussion in Chapter 11 of keeping your PHP scripts secure by careful
validation of user input. We continue that discussion here, focusing on user input that participates in your scripts’ interaction with your databases. Your data is, after all, probably your most
treasured resource. Your primary goal in writing scripts to access that data should be to protect
your users’ data at all costs. In the rest of this chapter, we’ll show you ways to use PHP to do

What SQL Injection Is

There is no point to putting data into a database if you intend never to use it; databases are
designed to promote the convenient access and manipulation of their data. But the simple act
of doing so carries with it the potential for disaster. This is true not so much because you yourself might accidentally delete everything rather than selecting it. Instead, it is that your attempt
to accomplish something innocuous could actually be hijacked by someone who substitutes
his own destructive commands in place of yours. This act of substitution is called injection.
Every time you solicit user input to construct a database query, you are permitting that
user to participate in the construction of a command to the database server. A benign user may
be happy enough to specify that he wants to view a collection of men’s long-sleeved burgundy-
colored polo shirts in size large; a malicious user will try to find a way to contort the command
that selects those items into a command that deletes them, or does something even worse.
Your task as a programmer is to find a way to make such injections impossible.
How SQL Injection Works
Constructing a database query is a perfectly straightforward process. It typically proceeds
something like this (for demonstration purposes, we’ll assume that you have a database of
wines, where one of the fields is the grape variety):
  1. You provide a form that allows the user to submit something to search for. Let’s assume
    that the user chooses to search for wines made from the grape variety “lagrein.”
  2. You retrieve the user’s search term, and save it by assigning it to a variable, something
    like this:

    SnyderSouthwell_5084.book  Page 250  Saturday, July 16, 2005  6:14 AM
    $variety = $_POST['variety'];

    So that the value of the variable $variety is now this:

  3. You construct a database query, using that variable in the WHERE clause, something
    like this:

    $query = "SELECT * FROM wines WHERE variety='$variety'";

    so that the value of the variable $query is now this:

    SELECT * FROM wines WHERE variety='lagrein'
  4. You submit the query to the MySQL server.
  5. MySQL returns all records in the wines table where the field variety has the value
So far, this is very likely a familiar and comfortable process.
Unfortunately, sometimes familiar and comfortable processes lull us into complacency.
So let’s look back at the actual construction of that query.

  1. You created the invariable part of the query, ending it with a single quotation mark,
    which you will need to delineate the beginning of the value of the variable:

    $query = "SELECT * FROM wines WHERE variety = '";
  2. You concatenated that invariable part with the value of the variable containing the
    user’s submitted value:
    $query .= $variety;
  3. You then concatenated the result with another single quotation mark, to delineate the
    end of the value of the variable:

    $query .= "'";

    The value of $query was therefore (with the user input in bold type) this:

    SELECT * FROM wines WHERE variety = 'lagrein'

    The success of this construction depended on the user’s input. In this case, you were
    expecting a single word (or possibly a group of words) designating a grape variety, and you got
    it. So the query was constructed without any problem, and the results were likely to be just
    what you expected, a list of the wines for which the grape variety is “lagrein.”
    Let’s imagine now that your user, instead of entering a simple grape variety like “lagrein”
    (or even “pinot noir”), enters the following value (notice the two included punctuation marks):

    lagrein' or 1=1;