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How to Ensure Referential Integrity to Protect Your SQL Data

You may think that if you can control who sees, creates, modifies, and deletes data in a SQL table, you’re well protected. Against most threats, you are. A knowledgeable hacker, however, can still ransack the house by using an indirect method.

A correctly designed relational database has referential integrity, which means that the data in one table in the database is consistent with the data in all the other tables. To ensure referential integrity, database designers apply constraints to tables that restrict the data users can enter into the tables.

But here’s the downside of that protection: If you have a database with referential integrity constraints, a user can possibly create a new table that uses a column in a confidential table as a foreign key. That column then serves as a link through which someone can possibly steal confidential information. Oops.

Say, for example, that you’re a famous Wall Street stock analyst. Many people believe in the accuracy of your stock picks, so whenever you recommend a stock to your subscribers, many people buy that stock, and its value increases.

You keep your analysis in a database, which contains a table named FOUR_STAR. Your top recommendations for your next newsletter are in that table. Naturally, you restrict access to FOUR_STAR so that word doesn’t leak out to the investing public before your paying subscribers receive the newsletter.

You’re still vulnerable, however, if anyone else can create a new table that uses the stock name field of FOUR_STAR as a foreign key, as shown in the following command example:

CREATE TABLE HOT_STOCKS (
  Stock CHARACTER (30) REFERENCES FOUR_STAR
  );

The hacker can now try to insert the name of every stock on the New York Stock Exchange, American Stock Exchange, and NASDAQ into the table. Those inserts that succeed tell the hacker which stocks match the stocks that you name in your confidential table. It doesn’t take long for the hacker to extract your entire list of stocks.

You can protect yourself from hacks such as the one in the preceding example by being very careful about entering statements similar to the following:

GRANT REFERENCES (Stock)
  ON FOUR_STAR
  TO SECRET_HACKER;

Clearly this is an exaggeration. You would never grant any kind of access to a critical table to an untrustworthy person, would you? Not if you realized what you were doing. However, hackers today are not just clever technically. They are also masters of misleading people into doing what they ordinarily would not do. Ramp up to full alert whenever a smooth talker mentions anything related to your confidential information.

Avoid granting privileges to people who may abuse them. True, people don’t come with guarantees printed on their foreheads. But if you wouldn’t lend your new car to a person for a long trip, you probably shouldn’t grant him the REFERENCES privilege on an important table, either.

The preceding example offers one good reason for maintaining careful control of the REFERENCES privilege. Here are two other reasons why you should maintain careful control of REFERENCES:

  • If the other person specifies a constraint in HOT STOCKS by using a RESTRICT option and you try to delete a row from your table, the DBMS tells you that you can’t, because doing so would violate a referential integrity constraint.

  • If you want to use the DROP command to destroy your table, you find you must get the other person to DROP his constraint (or his table) first.

The bottom line: Enabling another person to specify integrity constraints on your table not only introduces a potential security breach, but also means that the other user sometimes gets in your way.

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