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Stay ahead of Java security issues like SQL and LDAP injections

Java security best practices include validating input to prevent injection attacks and managing malicious JAR vulnerabilities.

If, like about 10 million other folks, you're a Java developer, you probably want to know how to keep Java code secure. Developers will always need to stay on top of tips and best practices to tackle Java security issues.

Java is the most popular programming language today, with good reason. Java code is cross-platform. Java programming is widely taught in university computer science departments. So many eager-eyed programmers walk into their first jobs ready to code in Java. And Java's object-oriented design makes it simple to reuse code.

Yet, despite Java's popularity, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who'd argue Java is the most secure programming language out there. Java security issues are real. Java was designed to be as secure as most other popular programming languages, and it offers features like SecurityManager to help improve security in certain contexts. However, Java applications are subject to a number of potential security vulnerabilities, including, but not limited to, various injection attacks.

It's crucial for Java developers and administrators to keep common Java security vulnerabilities in mind as they write and deploy Java applications. Security-first programming is especially important in the case of Java because the cross-platform nature of Java code means that OS-level security frameworks can't always be trusted to keep applications secure.

Nor should you expect end users to be able to manage Java security threats effectively. Sure, you can blame your users for running untrusted Java code or disabling automatic updates to their Java runtimes, but ultimately, the burden of writing secure Java applications and isolating code within a Java environment that might not be secure lies with developers.

Common Java security issues

Java programmers should keep the following security challenges in mind when they are designing and writing Java applications.

SQL injections

SQL injections occur when an attacker inserts malicious SQL query code into a form. If the application fails to detect the malicious code and passes it onto a database, the database could be modified in a harmful way, or sensitive data could be exposed to unauthorized parties.

The proliferation of automated tools for SQL injections makes SQL injection attacks a widespread security challenge for Java applications and, for that matter, virtually any other type of application that might connect to a database today.

The solution to SQL injection attacks in Java is simple enough: Make sure your app properly validates input and prevents malicious code from being appended to data already accepted into a form. As a general rule and where possible, avoid dynamic queries to mitigate the risk of SQL injections in Java applications. Java's PreparedStatement class can also be helpful for preventing SQL attacks.

Java LDAP injections

Injection attacks that exploit Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) statements represent another common attack on Java applications. Here, again, input validation is the key to preventing attacks.

In particular, Java developers can thwart most types of LDAP injection attacks if they escape LDAP special characters.

Other types of Java injection attacks

We've already covered SQL injections and LDAP injections, but injection attacks in Java applications don't end there. Connection string injections, cross-site scripting (XSS) injections and other types of attacks are all possible.

These types of attacks don't apply to all Java applications -- XSS is really only a serious risk with web applications, for example -- but they are another reminder of why input validation is so important.

SecurityManager vulnerabilities

SecurityManager is designed so you can run untrusted bytecode securely within Java applications. SecurityManager sandboxes the bytecode in order to prevent attacks.

If you can achieve the functionality you need without [SecurityManager], mitigate Java security risks, and avoid it.

This makes SecurityManager a great resource for Java security -- provided, of course, that it works correctly. The main risk of SecurityManager is the history of security vulnerabilities that's arisen within SecurityManager itself. These vulnerabilities sometimes allow isolated code to break out of the sandbox and execute attacks.

To an extent, managing SecurityManager and Java security issues is a problem not for developers but for system admins, who must keep Java runtimes up to date. However, developers can do their part and avoid sandboxes when possible. In other words, don't blindly trust SecurityManager. If you have to use it in an application, use it. But if you can achieve the functionality you need without it, mitigate Java security risks, and avoid it.

Malicious JARs

When a Java application loads JARs at runtime, sometimes, a hacker can trick the application into linking malicious JARs. This is an old security problem, and Java has introduced a number of checks over the years to help prevent it.

Some of these attack mitigation features act on their own accord, but developers can take full advantage of them by signing JARs. That way, signatures are verified at runtime and prevent intrusions. Programmers can also mitigate the threat posed by malicious JARS by restricting the access privileges of specific classes so that, if malicious code is loaded, natural security policies will limit the damage malicious code can do.

This was last published in March 2018

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