How Systems Get Exploited – Content Becomes Structure

Don’t let content become structure.

There are many different ways in which an information system can be exploited, to include buffer overflows, SQL injection, cross-site scripting, etc. However, the vast majority of common exploits can be avoided by adherence to a single principle:

Don’t let content become structure.

In the categories of exploits listed above, maliciously crafted content breaks out of its proper role and becomes structure (instructions) that the system follows . If you can ensure that the values your system manipulates never become instructions for the system to execute, then you’ll probably be okay in terms of exploits in the products you build yourself. (Password management and platform hardening are different stories.) The ways in which you keep content from becoming structure are technology-specific (sanitizing form inputs, using JDBC parameters, etc), but the underlying principle applies to most of the security holes you’re likely to create / avoid.

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