Hack’n’Slash Security

I was intending on a totally different post, but, well, this came up instead.

Recently, WordPress, my preferred blogging software, has been under attack by both hackers and critics. There were actually three attcks that all got lumped into one so I’ll try and break this down. If you’re of the ‘Too long! Didn’t Read!’ variety today, you can get by with knowing this: If your WordPress install is not secure and if your web host is not secure and if YOU do not follow security practices, then you will be hacked. Period. Security relies on you, your web host and your web apps all being sensible about the whole thing to be effective. Remember, it’s okay to ask for help!

Also go read Hardening WordPress right now.

Okay, so security.

Back in Feburary/March, there was a sudden influx of users complaining their sites had been hacked by inii.info, whereby the hack was to edit the wp-blog-header.php and change it so any time a search engine bots visited your site, they went to inii instead. This matters because search engine bots collect information about your site and use it to rank your website against all the other sites about a given topic. There was a second hack where a file named ... (yes, three periods) had even more redirect code in it. And it was heavily encoded so you couldn’t read it without decoding.

The reason I call this a Media Temple hack was that it seemed to be prevalent to Media Temple installs. While at first people jumped the gun and said ‘It’s WordPress!’ Media Temple came out with a detailed Q&A about the matter and the attack appeared to affect ALL webapps via compromised passwords. If Media Temple ever revealed what happened, I’m not aware of it, but it wasn’t just WordPress that was affected. They ended up changing DB passwords for every webapp, from Drupal to vBulletin.

In early April, there was another rash of hacks, this time targeting Network Solutions. This time, it looked like a clear cut case of database changes. WordPress, like most PHP/SQL apps out there, uses a database to store all its information. In this instance, the database entry for the site’s URL was changed from (for example) https://ipstenu.org to an iframe link I’m not reproducing here.

At the same time, there was a ‘Pharma’ hack, where links with ‘pharma’ in them were slipped into your site, in a rather genius fashion. Chris Pearson has a decent explanation on the matter, but I feel he’s barking at the wrong car for part of it.

Chris and Media Temple and Network Solutions and a horde of people on Twitter and forums every where jumped up and said “AHA! It’s a WordPress hack!!!111!” Which … well, yes, but not exactly. As the very wise Andrea_r put it, there’s a difference between attacking WordPress installs and targeting WordPress installs.

An analogy if you please. There’s a rash of break-ins in a small town. The houses that are broken into are all bungalows. People shout ‘Aha! It’s a problem with bungalows not being secure!’ The police look into the matter and find out that in every house broken into, the bathroom window was left open. Now, is this the fault of the builder, who designed bungalows to have a window people could fit in through or is this the fault of the residents who didn’t close and lock their windows?

If you said ‘It’s a little of each!’ then thank you, you can stay after class and clean the erasers.

Security depends on many things, but to the topic at hand, server security is a tripod, and relies primarily on these three legs:

  • The Web Host is responsible for making sure the sever itself is up to date with the latest patches etc, and that the server is configured in a safe way.
  • Web-apps are responsible for not unleashing needless insecurities to the system.
  • The end-user we pray to the flying spaghetti monster that they’ve not done something to violate security out of ignorance.

To understand how these hacks all worked, yes all of them, you have to look at the perfect storm. This is what had to happen in order for all these accounts to be compromised:

  1. Someone saved their wp-config.php file in a way that it was readable by the free world.
  2. Someone scanned for and found that file.
  3. The user was using their ID and Password, rather than creating a DB user just for the blog.
  4. That account had read access to other accounts on the same server
  5. The malicious user used the account to scan for other wp-config.php files, even if they were saved securely and compromised their accounts/databases as well.

That’s a lot of wrong on one box. With most webhosts, you’re on what’s called ‘Shared Hosting’ which means a whole mess of people are on the same server, each with their own ID and password. Much like if multiple people have IDs on a desktop PC, the inherent security of the server does not allow Joe to look at Jane’s files, unless she saves them in a public space. Alas, one a couple sites, this was not the case. SO Joe, who saved his wp-config.php file with 777, and used his server ID and password to access his database in that file, was compromised. And once the hacker had Joe’s information, he scanned the entire server and hurt everyone.


But wait, doesn’t that mean it’s WordPress’ fault for saving passwords in the wp-config.php file in a way a hacker can read them!? Well, yes, it’s certainly WordPress’ ‘fault’ but you have to realize that doing so is an accepted risk of most PHP/SQL webapps, in that for the SQL DB to be read, the password to that database must be kept in clear text (i.e. not encrypted). This is in the wp-config.php file.

Okay, so it’s Joe’s fault for saving his file in a readable fashion? Somewhat. By having their wp-config.php file set so that anyone can read it (bad permissions – 777 for example), Joe put himself at risk. This IS NOT a flaw in web-app or the ISP, it’s just … well, ignorant (unless the ISP is forcing the file to be 777 to run WordPress, at which point it’s their fault, and yes, there’s an ISP that does that!). In addition, I know a lot of people who, instead of making a DB user for their blog, will put their server ID and password in that file, which means once it’s been read, ANYONE can log into that server as them. I suspect this is done from ignorance as well. By the way, your server ID and password is the same as your FTP user ID and password in most cases.

Back to WordPress, shouldn’t they check for that? Maybe. But it’s not that easy, since there are a lot of different ‘acceptable’ security settings for that file, and it all depends on the server. Maybe one day WordPress will figure that out, but right now they tell you to make it secure.

What about the web server? They are responsible for making sure that if Joe User set his WP config file to 777, and put their server ID/Password in there, the worst they can do is shoot themselves in the foot by preventing them from reading anyone else’s user directory. Limit the destruction on a per-user basis. There are a lot of Shared Hosts out there with lax security policies, which makes this more prevalent than I’d like.

Hopefully that made sense.

All of these hacks seem to be looking for people with wp-config files that can be read, logging into the account as the user (or the database user), and either adding files that edit the database, editing the database, or both editing the database and adding the fake plugin files.

Once your server is insecure, because of compromised IDs and Passwords, you have to go back to zero, reset ALL your passwords, scan your PC for viruses, and be careful. Remember, if they have your password, they can do everything you can do.

Good luck out there. Be smart, be secure, be safe.

Edited to add…
Also check out Mark’s well written post about how your security? Is your responsibility. Because dude, is SO is.


4 responses to “Hack’n’Slash Security”

  1. Ipstenu Avatar

    Sidebar – I was talking about this elsewhere and someone said the number of people hacked surprised them.

    Here’s some math:

    WordPress’s Download Counter lists 2.9 being at 7,808,454 downloads. That doesn’t count people who use Fantastico, or people who use the same downloaded zip on multiple accounts, or (I think) people who upgraded. That’s just 7,808,454 people since 2.9 was released. Someone correct me if I’m way off base.

    If just one percent of those people have buggered security, that’s still 78084 installs.

    Seventy-eight THOUSAND people.

    So yeah, I have no problem with the high number of people getting nailed by this.

    I am a little surprised (and pleased) that they’re speaking up 🙂 This means they can get educated!

  2. Nice writeup. The middle gets a little mushy in terms of “fault” and whether there are actually things WordPress can even do to improve security of a host or the file permissions, but the key is that it’s a shared responsibility of software, host, and user.

    1. Ipstenu Avatar

      Yeah, I wasn’t 100% satisfied with explaining fault because it’s so nebulous. I was trying to explain how pointing fingers and accepting some responsibility both are a PART of being ‘at fault’ but also separate. I had the same problem explaining to my kid brother that it was okay to tell people ‘You know, that was me who broke the lamp.’ It’s not a bad thing to be at fault.

      And yes, there are things WP (and you and your host) can always do to make things more secure. But should they? That’s another question all together! 🙂

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. […] has been a troubling time for a couple of well known web-hosts security wise. Ipsentu wrote a post on the various hacks that took place this month and I thought it was a well written piece that explains the variables […]