SQL Server Security: The Threats

Excerpt by Don Kiely | May 21, 2013

cloud-security Relational databases are used in an amazing variety of applications with connections from a dizzying array of clients, ranging from handheld devices to mainframe Web service applications. This activity exposes data over widely distributed networks, particularly the Internet, which makes it accessible to almost anyone, anywhere. The databases hold a significant portion of human knowledge, including highly sensitive personal information and critical data that makes international commerce work.

These characteristics make databases attractive targets for people who want to steal data or harm its owner by tampering with it. Making sure that your data is secure is a critical part of installing and configuring SQL Server and developing applications that use it to store data.

SQL Server has everything you need to secure your server and data against today's sophisticated attacks. But before you can use these security features effectively, you need to understand the threats you face and a few basic security concepts.

The Threats

Identifying threats to a particular set of data and its server is an important first step in understanding how to configure and use SQL Server to protect the data. A database you create to manage your grade school soccer team's equipment inventory probably doesn't require heavy security measures. You'll probably want to provide at least minimal access control so that a team member can't just randomly change the record of who has which box of soccer balls.

On the other hand, if the database has personal data about the minors on the team, such as home addresses and phone numbers, you'll probably want to step up security protections (and may be legally required to do so). You might protect the privacy of the data by segregating access so that almost anyone with access to the database can change the equipment data but only a select few can access the personal data. If the data includes mom and dad's credit card number, you'll need to go to extreme lengths to protect that data.

TIP: Sometimes the best way to protect data is simply not to put it in the database-for example, credit card numbers.

The following list is a sample of the kinds of threats your data may be susceptible to, but it is by no means an exhaustive list. Plenty of resources are available on the Web that can help you analyze the risks for your specific situation. This list is intended to help you start thinking about threats and how to use the features of SQL Server to counter them or at least reduce your data's exposure to them.

  • Theft of data: Theft of data covers various types of unauthorized access to your data, whether by an outsider hacking into your network or an insider scanning for dirt on famous people. It may involve the thrill of reading forbidden information or be motivated by the sale of stolen credit card numbers.
  • Data vandalism: A hacker who gains access to your data can change it, which can cause a whole range of problems, from public embarrassment to shutting down your entire operation when all of your customer records are deleted.
  • Protecting data integrity: One of the biggest benefits of storing data in a relational database is that the database can help protect the integrity of the data. Data integrity includes mandating that every order have an associated customer, that a date stored in a date field really represents a calendar date, and that a percentage field contains only values between 0 and 100. Data integrity probably isn't the first thing you think of in connection with security, but it is an important part of protecting your data.
  • Illegal storage: In the past, the data you collected during the course of business was your own business. But now myriad federal laws exist in the U.S., throughout the European Union, and other countries that control the kinds of personal data you can store, how you store it, and how you protect it. The penalties for violations can be severe-both monetary penalties and damage to the public image of your company. This is less a threat to data than a threat to your organization.

You have to understand the threats to your data to know how to protect against them. Don't waste time on measures that don't protect against specific threats to your data. You'll never be able to cover all hypothetical situations, and at worst you'll make your database server completely unusable by its intended users. Security is always a compromise that balances the risks against the time and money necessary to implement and maintain safeguards.

ldn-expertdkielyThis post is an excerpt from the online courseware for our SQL Server 2012: Security Fundamentals course written by expert Don Kiely.

Don Kiely

Don Kiely is a featured instructor on many of our SQL Server and Visual Studio courses. He is a nationally recognized author, instructor, and consultant specializing in Microsoft technologies. Don has many years of teaching experience, is the author or co-author of several programming books, and has spoken at many industry conferences and user groups. In addition, Don is a consultant for a variety of companies that develop distributed applications for public and private organizations.

This course excerpt was originally posted May 21, 2013 from the online courseware SQL Server 2012, Part 5 of 9: Security Basics by Don Kiely