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Concerns raised about WordPress’ new ‘White Screen Of Death’ protection feature

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Security researchers warn that a new feature that will ship with the next version of the WordPress CMS can be abused to disable security plugins and put WordPress sites and blogs at risk.

The feature, which has a very cool name in “WSOD (white-screen-of-death) Protection” and is considered the equivalent of a WordPress Safe Mode, is scheduled to make its debut with the release of WordPress 5.1, expected this spring.

Also: A botnet of over 20,000 WordPress sites is attacking other WordPress sites

As described by WordPress core developer Felix Arntz, the feature allows WordPress to recognize when a fatal PHP error occurs and what plugin or theme is causing it.

The WSOD Protection feature will pause the plugin or theme’s code and allow the site’s administrator to access the backend panel, where they can investigate and disable the culprit(s) causing the errors.

WordPress WSOD Protection

Image: Felix Arntz

The WordPress team began working on the WSOD Protection feature months ago. The feature is part of a grand master plan to help site owners update from using outdated PHP 5.x servers to using the newer 7.x branches.

The WSOD Protection feature was created at first to allow site owners to recover from site crashes after the PHP 7.x migration, but WordPress developers realized this could also be used to catch errors after updates to WordPress plugins or themes, which sometimes also crash sites in similar ways.

But as the feature took shape and neared completion, several security researchers have realized that it could also be abused.

In a blog post published earlier this week, bug hunter Slavco Mihajloski pointed out that attackers could use low-end and sometimes harmless exploits in WordPress plugins to trigger a fatal PHP error that will be caught by the WSOD protection feature.

Since the WSOD protection feature is designed to pause the faulty plugin’s execution, Mihajloski argues that attackers could abuse it to disable firewalls, two-factor authentication, brute-force protection, and other security-focused plugins installed on WordPress sites.


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Mihajloski’s worries were also shared by Matt Rusnak, QA Lead at WordFence. In a bug report discussing the feature, Rusnak also pointed out several other attack scenarios where the WSOD Protection feature would end up helping attackers.

  1. A plugin may be paused because another plugin used a lot of memory. When a site’s memory_limit is reached, the plugin that happened to be running at the time can be paused, even if it’s not using excessive memory. That might cause security issues, or may just be confusing for the admin, since the paused plugin(s) aren’t necessarily the cause of the issue.
  2. Local File Inclusion vulnerabilities in any plugin/theme will give the attacker the ability to pause many plugins at will. When any plugin/theme is vulnerable to “Local File Inclusion (LFI)”, an attacker often cannot use that to make changes to the site, but if plugins can be paused by WP 5.1 for redeclaring an existing class, an attacker can choose specific plugins to pause, even if those plugins are not vulnerable. I’ve included examples for Jetpack, WPS Hide Login, and Akismet, with a demo plugin with a simple LFI vulnerability. (There are over 1100 entries on Exploit DB at www.exploit-db.com when searching “local file inclusion” without quotes — some are old or are not WP plugins, but it’s common enough to be a concern.)
  3. It might be possible that max_execution_time has the same issue as memory_limit. I haven’t made a test case yet. On a shared host that is running slowly, or any server under heavy load (including during intentional DoS or brute force attacks), many of the requests could cause timeouts, which could occur in random plugins’ code or the theme’s code.

The WordPress team answered to Rusnak’s feedback with plans to add a new option in the wp-config.php settings file that would allow site owners to disable WSOD Protection. The new option is named WP_DISABLE_FATAL_ERROR_HANDLER.

It is unclear if WSOD protection will ship enabled by default or not when WordPress 5.1 is released, but the feature remains dangerous still, regardless of the addition of the new wp-config.php option.

Security experts recommend that for the time being, site owners only enable it temporarily when updating the PHP server, the WordPress core, or its themes and plugins. Otherwise, keep it disabled.

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Security

Work from Home Security

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Spin Master is a leading global children’s entertainment company that invents toys and games, produces dozens of television and studio series that are distributed in 160 countries, and creates a variety of digital games played by more than 30 million children. What was once a small private company founded by childhood friends is now a public global supply chain with over 1,500 employees and 28 offices around the world.

Like most organizations in 2020, Spin Master had to adapt quickly to the new normal of remote work, shifting most of its production from cubicles in regional and head offices to hundreds of employees working from home and other remote locations.

This dramatic shift created potential security risks, as most employees were no longer behind the firewall on the corporate network. Without the implementation of hardened endpoint security, the door would be open for bad actors to infiltrate the organization, acquire intellectual property, and ransom customer information. Additionally, the potential downtime caused by a security breach could harm the global supply chain. With that in mind, Spin Master created a self-imposed 30-day deadline to extend its network protection capabilities to the edge.

Key Findings:

  • Think Long Term: The initial goal of establishing a stop-gap work-from-home (WFH) and work-from-anywhere (WFA) strategy has since morphed into a permanent strategy, requiring long-term solutions.
  • Gather Skills: The real urgency posed by the global pandemic made forging partnerships with providers that could fill all the required skill sets a top priority.
  • Build Momentum: The compressed timeline left no room for delay or error. The Board of Directors threw its support behind the implementation team and gave it broad budget authority to ensure rapid action, while providing active guidance to align strategy with action.
  • Deliver Value: The team established two key requirements that the selected partner must deliver: implementation support and establishing an ongoing managed security operations center (SOC).
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Security

Key Criteria for Evaluating Privileged Access Management

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Privileged Access Management (PAM) enables administrative access to critical IT systems while minimizing the chances of security compromises through monitoring, policy enforcement, and credential management.

A key operating principle of all PAM systems is the separation of user credentials for individual staff members from the system administration credentials they are permitted to use. PAM solutions store and manage all of the privileged credentials, providing system access without requiring users to remember, or even know, the privileged password. Of course, all staff have their own unique user ID and password that they use to complete everyday tasks such as accessing email and writing documents. Users who are permitted to handle system administration tasks that require privileged credentials log into the PAM solution, which provides and controls such access according to predefined security policies. These policies control who is allowed to use which privileged credentials when, where, and for what tasks. An organization’s policy may also require logging and recording of the actions undertaken with the privileged credentials.

Once implemented, PAM will improve your security posture in several ways. The first is by segregating day-to-day duties from duties that require elevated access, reducing the risk of accidental privileged actions. Secondly, automated password management reduces the possibility that credentials will be shared while also lowering the risk if credentials are accidentally exposed. Finally, extensive logging and activity recording in PAM solutions aids audits of critical system access for both preventative and forensic security.

How to Read this Report

This GigaOm report is one of a series of documents that helps IT organizations assess competing solutions in the context of well-defined features and criteria. For a fuller understanding consider reviewing the following reports:

Key Criteria report: A detailed market sector analysis that assesses the impact that key product features and criteria have on top-line solution characteristics—such as scalability, performance, and TCO—that drive purchase decisions.

GigaOm Radar report: A forward-looking analysis that plots the relative value and progression of vendor solutions along multiple axes based on strategy and execution. The Radar report includes a breakdown of each vendor’s offering in the sector.

Vendor Profile: An in-depth vendor analysis that builds on the framework developed in the Key Criteria and Radar reports to assess a company’s engagement within a technology sector. This analysis includes forward-looking guidance around both strategy and product.

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Adventist Risk Management Data Protection Infrastructure

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Companies always want to enhance their ability to quickly address pressing business needs. Toward that end, they look for new ways to make their IT infrastructures more efficient—and more cost effective. Today, those pressing needs often center around data protection and regulatory compliance, which was certainly the case for Adventist Risk Management. What they wanted was an end-to-end, best-in-class solution to meet their needs. After trying several others, they found the perfect combination with HYCU and Nutanix, which provided:

  • Ease of deployment
  • Outstanding ROI
  • Overall TCO improvement

Nutanix Cloud Platform provides a software-defined hyperconverged infrastructure, while HYCU offers purpose-built backup and recovery for Nutanix. Compared to the previous traditional infrastructure and data protection solutions in use at Adventist Risk Management, Nutanix and HYCU simplified processes, speeding day-to-day operations up to 75%. Now, migration and update activities typically scheduled for weekends can be performed during working hours and help to increase IT staff and management quality of life. HYCU further increased savings by providing faster and more frequent points of recovery as well as better DR Recovery Point Objective (RPO) and Recovery Time Objective (RTO) by increasing the ability to do daily backups from one to four per day.

Furthermore, the recent adoption of Nutanix Objects, which provides secure and performant S3 storage capabilities, enhanced the infrastructure by:

    • Improving overall performance for backups
    • Adding security against potential ransomware attacks
    • Replacing components difficult to manage and support

In the end, Nutanix and HYCU enabled their customer to save money, improve the existing environment, and, above all, meet regulatory compliance requirements without any struggle.

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