By Joris Evers
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
March 6, 2007
ARLINGTON, Va. -- Don't even try to tell David Litchfield that Oracle is
Litchfield, a noted bug hunter, has made it his mission to tell the
world that database software is insecure--Oracle's database software in
particular. Litchfield has been vocal in his criticism of Oracle, even
calling for the resignation of Oracle Chief Security Officer Mary Ann
For too long, Oracle and its customers have stuck their heads in the
sand when it comes to security, according to Litchfield. And Oracle has
taken the wrong approach to address mounting security concerns, he
Litchfield, co-founder of Next Generation Security Software in the U.K.,
is on a crusade. In January he published The Oracle Hacker's Handbook .
The book, according to its cover, offers readers a complete arsenal to
assess and defend Oracle systems.
While dissing Oracle, Litchfield is cheerleading for Microsoft. He has
publicly stated that SQL Server 2005, the latest version of Microsoft's
database software, is secure. This must hurt at Oracle, a Microsoft arch
rival, which has already seen a significant piece of the database market
go to the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant.
When not hunting for bugs, Litchfield likes to go out with his two
greyhounds, and he helps charities find homes for other canines. In
fact, he is so passionate about his dogs that he dedicated The Oracle
Hacker's Handbook to his wife and two girls, the girls being his
At last week's Black Hat DC event, Litchfield discussed a new attack
technique that increases the severity of certain vulnerabilities in
Oracle's database software. He sat down with CNET News.com at the event
to explain why such disclosures are necessary.
Q: Why are you into database security? There's so much other software
Litchfield: Because that's where the crown jewels are for any
organization. Every organization on this planet has a database and
that's where the lifeblood of that organization exists. Where better to
secure it than at the source. We can secure it at the perimeter, but
with vulnerabilities like SQL injection, that security is completely
Despite having a firewall, despite having the Web server locked down, an
SQL injection flaw in your Web app takes us all the way through to the
back end of the database server. If that database is not using the
principle of least privilege or is not fully patched, then we can gain
full access to the database server and suck out all your data. The
database has to be secured. The problem is that nobody has ever really
dealt with the back end until recently. It has always been about
securing the perimeter.
Lately you have especially been looking closely at Oracle's databases.
Is there a specific reason that you're looking at Oracle more than
Microsoft or IBM?
Litchfield: Yes. SQL Server 2005 is secure. (Microsoft has) solved the
problem. Oracle is in the process of solving that problem. IBM, I have
looked at DB2 and Informix and sent them a bunch of bugs, probably about
50, ranging from buffer overflows to privilege escalation issues. But
IBM's security response was mature. In the most recent past, the Oracle
security response was not so mature. They have been combative, as
opposed to: "This guy is just trying to make our products more secure."
But it is getting better. Oracle is beginning to understand that we're
fighting on the same side, just from different perspectives.
When a vendor like Oracle becomes more combative, you become more
combative as well?
Litchfield: I will. It is unfortunate that it happens that way, but if
you have to defend yourself, then you should defend yourself. I would
rather be working, like I do with Microsoft and IBM, with their security
response team. We've got good relationships with Microsoft and IBM. What
better way to get things done than have a good relationship, as opposed
to sniping at each other from the gutter.
My relationship has gotten slightly better with Oracle, and they
understand that it's not so much a battle of wills. I'm trying to make
them aware of these problems in their database because it affects me
indirectly. If someone breaks into that database server and steals my
information, then I'm paying for it, not Oracle.
Some might think that it's some sort of an extortion game that's being
Litchfield: I've never asked Oracle for money. If people think that,
they are ill-informed.
And Microsoft doesn't pay you to say SQL Server 2005 is secure.
Litchfield: I'm not being paid by Microsoft to say they're secure, and
if anyone is going find a bug in SQL Server 2005, it better be me. It
would undermine my ability to be able to say in the future that a
product is secure if bugs are found by anyone else. So, if there are
bugs in SQL Server 2005, I hope I'm the one who finds them, and I'm
What's the business of NGS Software?
Litchfield: There are three sides to the business. We sell tools to help
assess your state of vulnerability and whether you're compliant with
Sarbanes-Oxley, etc. We consult to a number of organizations, and we
also do vulnerability research and sell that research.
What types of organizations are your typical research customers?
Litchfield: Government organizations, those who are responsible for
critical national infrastructure and the protection thereof. We try to
give them advance warning of security problems. We can tell them that
there's a flaw in a particular product, along with a risk mitigation
strategy. Even in the absence of a vendor-supplied patch, these systems
will be protected.
NGS has been growing over the past years. Where is the demand?
Litchfield: It's mostly in consultancy, which is a bit of a shame
because I set out to build a software company and we're more of a
consultancy. That's one of my personal failures though and I've not
given up. We will be a software company at some stage.
What does a typical consultant do?
Litchfield: He might do penetration tests, code reviews or threat
modeling. It is not installing firewalls; our consultants do the
What is it that drives you to get up and do your job every day?
Litchfield: Well, I'm good at it, and if you're good at something,
you've got more drive to do. If I was a good painter, I would paint
more, you know. But since I am crap, I don't bother doing that. I enjoy
Particularly the bug hunting part of it?
Litchfield: Yes, it's just a question of analysis. If I were trying to
subvert the system, how would I do it? The other reason is that it has
an effect on everyone's lives. Now, it's not like I'm curing cancer, but
I know that one database server tomorrow is going to be more secure
because of something I did, and that means that, for example, more
credit card numbers are safe that day.
If people at Oracle say that you actually hurt security because of the
disclosure of vulnerabilities, what do you say?
Litchfield: They have a case. In certain cases it does raise the risk
level, OK, and that's one of the major problems with this kind of work.
However, in raising the risk level, people are more inclined to protect
Now, as an example of this, I just put out that new attack method that
allows an attacker without any special privileges to exploit flaws that
were thought to be only exploitable by people with higher privileges.
Now we know that that's not true, people have no reason to say they are
not going to patch.
Someone has, within day zero of me posting my new method, modified their
exploits and posted them publicly to use my new methods. Those exploits
now can be run by anyone. So, yes it has increased the risk.
Back in August 2002, I presented some code that was then taken to form
the basis of SQL Slammer. There was that initial raising of risk, but
after that short-term pain, there are now more patched SQL Servers out
there than there ever were before. The short-term risk has been raised
for the long-term benefit, that's the way I look at it.
If people like you weren't around, some might say we wouldn't know of
any security risks and nobody would be exploiting them either. You don't
think that's true?
Litchfield: I don't think that's true. There are always going to be bad
guys out there. If there aren't good guys working with the vendors to
close these holes, then we'll be walking around with our head in the
clouds thinking we're all secure when we're not. Security through
ignorance really doesn't work because one person's ignorance is someone
else's revenue stream.
What makes you pull your hair out?
Litchfield: When people say things like I'm increasing risk or doing it
for selfish reasons. I'm not like that. But I can't always be the
popular guy. I just wish there were fewer detractors.
You published The Oracle Hacker's Handbook recently. What do you hope to
achieve with the book?
Litchfield: The Oracle security world is smug basically, and I'm trying
to take that security blanket away from them. There are too many people
out there who think that the Oracle product is secure and that they
don't need to be doing anything. That's irresponsible, as far as I'm
What would you like people to know you for?
Litchfield: I would like to be the person who helped convince people
that database security is important to look at. I would like to think
that it's through my work, and obviously that of some of my peers in the
industry, that we've helped shape the way security is dealt with at
places like Oracle and Microsoft.
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