How Secure is MongoDB Database? An Ultimate Guide

Web Development Jan 16, 2020

In that article, we aim at looking at the data about the security of Mongo DataBase – a very popular no-SQL database – which is widely used all over the world.

MongoDB has suffered from many bad stories where the databases of many MongoDB users were hacked because of what is known as a ‘no-security configuration’ by default.

Here we wish to look at the facts and investigate if Mongo Database is really secure or not.

Some Background About MongoDB and MongoDB Inc.

In 2007, a company named 10gen software started to develop MongoDB. Shortly, the name of the company, 10gen Software, was changed to MongoDB Inc.

MongoDB falls into the category of the no-SQL, non-transactional databases. It uses JSON to create database structure and records. The records are collections of documents and their format is left to the responsibility of the developers so it differs quite from the SQL model where records follow a strict and well-defined structure,

MongoDB is considered traditionally “simpler” to use than the SQL databases such as MySQL or Microsoft SQL. Therefore it has attracted a large audience of a “new generation” of developers not wishing to learn or use the SQL syntax. 

From the corporate website of MongoDB, at the time of writing the article: “MongoDB has more than 13,000 customers in more than 100 countries. The MongoDB database platform has been downloaded over 60 million times and there have been more than 1 million MongoDB University registrations.

MongoDB inc has more than 1,000 employees in around 20 countries. This means that we are dealing with an established and serious company. The business model of MongoDB is mass market and based on paid hosted services but the database itself is open source and free to download and use. 

MongoDB which is listed on the NASDAQ stock market as MDB posted revenues of $99.37 million for the quarter ended July 2019.

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Some of the Hacks Involved With Mongo Database

One of the most recent hacks discovered involved a man named Bob Diachenko, a security researcher, whose passion is to hunt for misconfigured Mongo Databases.

One of the main tools used by Diachenko to search for vulnerable Mongo databases is Shodan.

Shodan is a paid search engine which is able to access information from the “Internet of Things”, routers, smart TVs, webcam, or other such devices. It monitors usually metadata or service banners. Users who have bought a subscription to Shodan are able to access data from traffic lights, as well as industrial water control systems, nuclear plants control systems, synchrotrons, etc.. 

On 23 April 2019, Diachenko discovered a database, using Shodan, which had more than 275 million records containing private details about Indian citizens! 

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Records included the individual’s name, genders, email addresses and also employment history, employer, salary, mobile phone numbers. 

Some of the hacks involved with Mongo database

Diachenko reported this to the Indian authorities but shortly after, the database became erased and replaced with coordinates and instructions on how to pay a ransom to get the data back … so others than Diachenko were monitoring the vulnerable databases in shodan – of more realistically, they knew about that database by reading Diachenko’s blog.

As Diachenko explained: “I have previously reported that the lack of authentication allowed the installation of malware or ransomware on the MongoDB servers.

Previously the same Diachenko discovered another database that was unprotected. 

The database was owned by Verifications IO enterprise email validation service. That company was involved in a bulk email list. A total of 808,539,939 records – email addresses with details – had been exposed.

A security researcher from Microsoft, Niall Merrigan claimed that – in 2017- more than 27,000 Mongo databases had already been seized by ransomware. The attack came as a sudden wave, targeting unsecured Mongo databases all over the world. 

The scheme of a typical MongoDB attack consists of identifying insecure databases, copying or ciphering the data then replacing them by ciphered or voiding data or simply deleting the databases. Finally, the attacker asks money – usually via Bitcoins – to restore the data. 

The Official Position of MongoDB inc

Following the waves of attacks, MongoDB communicated about the fact that their databases are ‘opened’ by default. Meaning these databases – by default – can be reached via the internet without any passwords! Here is the integral statement from MongoDB Inc: 

As we can see, The official position of MongoDB Inc, at least at the time of the attacks and discoveries of a leaked database by Diachenko, consisted of assuming the politics of releasing the databases with “zero security” by default. 

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The Security Mechanisms of Mongo Database

Now let us look at the core of the problem… are Mongo Databases really insecure or not? Mongo Databases are provided with a great range of features: 

  • Authentication via LDAP, the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol, x509 or scram ;
  • Authorization mechanisms; 
  • Encryption of the data;
  • Auditing;
  • Governance.

Note that MongoDB is not common criteria evaluated unless for instance Microsoft SQL server 2016

A security “checklist” has been published by MongoDB and displays everything that a MongoDB administrator must do before releasing the database. We list here these requirements exactly as they are displayed on the MongoDB website: 

It seems therefore that MongoDB has strong security in place … 

BUT,

MySQL, Microsoft SQL Server, PostgreSQL, and other equivalent relational databases almost always default to local installation (connections are only possible from 127.0.0.1)  and to some form of authorization (users and passwords are needed ).

On the contrary, many MongoDB databases ( all the versions except the newest ones ) are exposed to the internet and don’t require credentials by default. 

Security researchers advised that the configuration file of a new MongoDB database is immediately changed so to restrict connections to localhost or to private security. subnetwork.

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Some Tests

We test the security of the database on windows by installing the latest release of the Mongo Database for windows x64:

MongoDB-win32-x86_64-2012plus-4.2.0-signed.msi.

We also choose to download the MongoDB Compass tool.

Installing MongoDB Compass tool
Installing MongoDB Compass tool

Looking at the configuration file, mongod.cfg, we see that Mongo databases are restricted to the localhost connections by default.

# where to write logging data.
systemLog:
  destination: file
  logAppend: true
  path:  %MONGO_LOG_PATH%\mongod.log

# network interfaces
net:
  port: 27017
  bindIp: 127.0.0.1

We start the server manually

MongoDB Compass tool server set up manually

We test that we can connect to 127.0.0.1 but that other interfaces are blocked.

MongoDB Compass tool server set up manually

Indeed we check that an external connection is refused. 

The newest versions of MongoDB restrict access to the localhost by default. 

Anyway, we were able to connect without a password. 

We are able to choose different mechanisms for access control but by default, the method is set to “none”.

We test user creation. We see – using the Mongo Shell Mongo.exe  – that we can specify the role of the new users and specify their level of access and rights. 

We create a user with read-only access in the Admin database

But the user has – by default – write access in the database “test” …

This means there is clearly a problem in the role-based access system of MongoDB.

Additionally, data is not ciphered by TLS by default so data will transit in clear without explicit configuration. This is also clearly a security issue. 

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Some Conclusions

While the most recent versions of MongoDB restrict the connection by default to the localhost, there are still no password, role-based access issues and no data ciphering by default. Certainly MongoDB databases -being no-SQL-  are not vulnerable to SQL injections but the recent history shows that they lack strong security and they must be used only by skilled administrators which will respect scrupulously all the conditions to make them secure. By default, a MongoDB database isn’t secure and this seems to be clearly a strategic choice from MongoDB inc. 

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