Safe Scripting with PostgreSQL

May 17, 2016

If you’ve ever worked with databases professionally, you should be well aware of SQL injection. When writing software, your driver should provide facilities for creating prepared statements so you can safely pass user-supplied parameters without it wreaking havoc on your database.

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However, sometimes you may have a task so trivial it could just be written in Bash. PostgreSQL comes with the psql command-line tool, so we can just run our queries using that. Your first thought may be to do something like this -

psql -c "select relkind from pg_class where relname = '$1'"

Note however that if the argument contained the value '; drop table foo; ' you’d end up with a dropped table! Generally, your scripts may not be vulnerable to this, but when they could be, it’s best to take some precautions.

Luckily, psql can handle sanitizing input variables by using the -v flag. From man psql -

-v assignment
    Perform a variable assignment, like the \set meta-command. Note that you must separate name and
    value, if any, by an equal sign on the command line. To unset a variable leave off the equal sign.
    To set a variable with an empty value, use the equal sign but leave off the value. These
    assignments are done during a very early stage of start-up, so variables reserved for internal
    purposes might get overwritten later.

Here’s a sanitized version of our original implementation -

psql -v name="$1" <<< "select relkind from pg_class where relname = :'name'"

There are a couple things to note regarding using variables -

  • You cannot use the -c flag to pass in the SQL string. Instead, redirect the string using <<<.
  • While you can use the :var syntax, you should generally prefer the :'var' syntax. This way variables are always quoted. psql can infer the appropriate type of 'text' values based on context, so this even works for numeric values.

If your SQL is a bit longer, you could store it in a separate file and just redirect it from there.


select relkind
from pg_class
where relname = :'name'


sql_file="$(dirname $0)/foo.sql"
if [ ! -f "$sql_file" ]; then
  >&2 echo "SQL file not found: $sql_file"
  exit 1
psql -X -v name="$1" < "$sql_file"

Also note that I’m providing the -X flag to avoid reading the user’s .psqlrc file. From man psql -

    Do not read the start-up file (neither the system-wide psqlrc file nor the user's ~/.psqlrc file).

Now we can safely pass any values to your script without fear.

$ chmod +x run-query
$ ./run-query pg_type
(1 row)
$ ./run-query "'; drop table foo; '"
(0 rows)

One caveat, variables don’t seem to work with the \copy command -

$ psql -X -v a=1 <<< "\\copy ( select :'a' + 2 as foo ) to stdout with csv header"
ERROR:  syntax error at or near ":"
LINE 1: COPY  ( select : 'a' + 2 ) TO STDOUT with csv header

They do however work with the standard copy command

$ psql -X -v a=1 <<< "copy ( select :'a' + 2 as foo ) to stdout with csv header"