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Microsoft rejects call to fix SQL password-exposure risk

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Microsoft is butting heads with a company that provides software for database security over a weakness in SQL Server that can expose user passwords to anyone with administrative access to the program.

Researchers at San Mateo, California-based Sentrigo warned Wednesday that the "significant vulnerability" is present in the 2000, 2005, and 2008 versions of SQL Server that use the mixed authentication mode, aka the SQL Server and Windows Authentication Mode. While those with administrative privileges typically have the ability to change others' passwords, they should never be able to view those access codes in the clear, they say.

"Applications go to great lengths to obfuscate passwords when they are needed within the software, and should not store passwords as 'clear text,' either in memory (as is the case with this vulnerability) or on disk," Sentrigo's advisory stated.

Microsoft has rejected the company's calls to change the way the software handles passwords, saying people with administrative rights already have complete control of the system anyway.

"Microsoft has thoroughly investigated claims of vulnerabilities in SQL Server and found that these are not product vulnerabilities requiring Microsoft to issue a security update," a spokesman wrote in an email. "An attacker who has administrative rights already has complete control of the system and can install programs; view, change, or delete data; or create new accounts with full user rights."

He called on customers using SQL Server to follow security guidelines Microsoft has already laid out.

Each side in this kerfuffle has a point. Clearly, the feature exposed by Sentrigo makes it easier for rogue insiders and attackers who breach a network's defenses to sniff out passwords that could aid in additional intrusions. And in the 2000 and 2005 versions of the program, this can be done remotely, raising the possibility that an attack could be done by exploiting a SQL injection vulnerability that gives a hacker administrative access to a backend database.

(Changes in the 2008 versions make it more difficult for users to access the memory, so the vulnerability can only be exploited locally, Sentrigo said).

But given the ability of the average administrator to sniff out credentials a half-dozen other ways, the vulnerability seems to be more a sin of omission. While it probably violates principles of security in depth, most IT pros aren't likely to lose much sleep over it.

For those who do, Sentrigo has released a free utility that provides SQL Server users with additional security by erasing passwords. It's available here. The exposure weakness has been designated CVE-2009-3039 by the common vulnerabilities and exposures project. ®

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