Guide: Data Security

Database Security: Top Threats and 6 Critical Defenses

What is Database Security?

Database security, a subset of data security, consists of security controls, tools, and countermeasures that can protect a database from malicious attacks. It encompasses the protection of the data itself, the database management systems that manage the data, and applications that access and use the data. The end goal is to protect confidentiality, integrity, and availability (CIA) of company information.

Many organizations fail to realize that databases are a critical security risk. In many security breaches, the main goal of the attackers is to gain access to databases to steal a large volume of sensitive information. 

Many attack techniques, such as SQL injection, are specially designed to compromise database systems, and attackers continue to devise new methods to breach databases and steal organizational data. Any organization must ensure that its databases are ready to withstand attacks. 

A defense in-depth approach is essential, where the organization deploys security defenses to protect the network, prevent access to databases, and also hardens the database itself in case attackers manage to directly access it.

In this article:

Database Security Threats and Vulnerabilities

Here are common security threats and vulnerabilities organizations should watch out for:

Threat
Causes
SQL injection
Occurs when threat actors inject malicious code into web-based frontend applications. The code can pass to a backend database and provide threat actors with access to all data stored in the database.
Denial of Service (DoS)
DoS attacks can slow down the database server or make it unavailable to end-users. The result is poor user experience and significantly high costs in bringing the database back up.
Database misconfigurations
Threat actors actively look for misconfigurations to exploit. Databases running with default settings are particularly useful to threat actors, making it easier to hack into these accounts.
Poorly managed sensitive data
Sensitive data is the bread and butter of organizations as well as cybercriminals. Unfortunately, many organizations do not properly secure their sensitive information, exposing it to attacks.
Weak audit trails
Many regulatory entities require organizations to record and register database events automatically. Keeping track of these events provides an audit trail that enables security teams, database administrators, and external auditors to investigate to ensure the data stored within the database is properly protected.

6 Database Security Best Practices to Defend Your Organization

Here are a few best practices organizations can use to protect databases from cyber attacks.

1. Harden Database Management Systems

Database hardening is the process of analyzing and configuring a database to address security vulnerabilities by applying security best practices.

 

The purpose of hardening a database is to protect database systems, including software and hardware components, against cyberattacks. A key part of hardening is to eliminate vulnerabilities by reducing the attack surface of the system. An organization can reduce the attack surface by eliminating redundant features, enabling security settings, and creating a secure baseline for a database system.

 

After hardening a database system and deploying it into your environment, it’s important to maintain security proactively, by applying patches and updates to protect against new vulnerabilities. Every time a DBMS system is updated or patched, the security baseline should be updated, so any new deployment of the same system will be protected against the new vulnerabilities.

2. Database Activity Monitoring

Database auditing is used to put a heavy strain on performance. Many organizations reduced detail in logs to improve operational efficiency. Fortunately, today all major database platforms provide robust, scalable monitoring and logging, which allows you to collect a full audit trail even for demanding production databases.

 

Organizations must ensure that database monitoring is enabled on their systems and that logs are sent to a secure repository. Monitoring systems must use behavior-based analysis to detect unusual user activity, especially among users with administrative access.

3. Encrypt Sensitive Data

Encryption is a critical best practice for database security. Businesses should use strong encryption to protect their databases in three ways:

 

  • Transport layer security (TSL) encryption should be mandatory for all database connections to protect data in transit.
  • Disk encryption for storage devices used by databases to prevent loss, theft, and improper disposal.
  • Column-level encryption to protect the most sensitive data fields within a database table.

4. Perform Vulnerability and Configuration Assessments

To test database security controls, IT security and compliance teams should perform ongoing assessments through regular vulnerability and configuration audits. These audits provide actionable information about:

 

  • Known vulnerabilities experienced by the database management system, the underlying operating system, or any integrated component.
  • Misconfigurations that could make the database vulnerable to attack.
  • Violation of government regulations, industry-standard, or company-established data security policies.

 

Vulnerability and configuration assessment should be automated and should be performed as frequently as possible. Any issues detected should be rapidly remediated.

5. Enforce the Principle of Least Privilege

A basic concept of network security is to restrict a user’s access to the minimum set of privileges required to perform their task. Organizations must determine to what degree their network access rules comply with this principle, putting special emphasis on corporate databases. Database administrators and security teams should ask themselves:

 

  • Who has full administrative access to a database? Can anyone be removed from the list?
  • Can administrators of one database gain full access to all databases? Or only to the database within the scope of their responsibility?
  • Who has access to sensitive tables, and can anyone be removed?
  • Is it permitted to access the database through external networks, and is this access warranted?
  • Can developers gain full access to a production database?
  • Does a system engineer have access to the underlying database of the systems they are responsible for?

 

Restricting access as much as possible is an important guarantee against internal threats.

6. Establish Security and Compliance Policies

Without clearly defined security policies and standards, it will be difficult for an organization to assess compliance and measure progress. Organizations often formulate strong data security policies, but without specific detail about how these policies apply to the database itself. 

 

Companies should establish robust policies with specific details about how to secure databases. Security and compliance teams need to determine how often policies are updated, who is responsible for the updates, why they are triggering policy changes, and who is involved in the policy update approval process. Any security incident should include a post-mortem step in which policies are evaluated and updated to reflect newly discovered threats.

Database Security Tools and Platforms

There is a wide variety of data security tools on the market. Here are key capabilities offered by database security solutions:

 

    • Discovery—identifying all the databases that exist on the network. This is required to comply with several standards and regulations.
  • Vulnerability assessment—scan and prioritize vulnerabilities in all databases, and provide actionable remediation guidance. 
    • Database activity monitoring—establishing an audit trail of all database activity, and monitoring databases in real-time both on-premises and in the cloud, whether they run on bare-metal machines, virtual machines (VM), or in containers. Solutions should identify suspicious activities and send alerts to security teams. 
  • Policies and compliance reports—defining rules and policies using a convenient interface. Based on these policies, the solution should be able to automatically generate reports needed for compliance audits.
  • Data encryption and tokenization—encrypting data at the file, volume, and application level, with the ability to anonymize or mask specific data within a database table. The solution should also provide key management capabilities. 
  • Risk analysis and exploration—leveraging threat intelligence and historical data analysis to identify usage patterns that might indicate security threats, with the ability to perform data exploration and threat hunting. Some solutions integrate with security information and event management (SIEM) systems to enable the analysis of database security information together with data from networks or other enterprise systems.

 

Related content: Read our guide to data security management (coming soon)

Database Security with Satori

Satori, The DataSecOps platform, gives companies the ability to enforce security policies from a single location, across all databases, data warehouses and data lakes. Such security policies can be data masking, data localization, row-level security and more.

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