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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 The feature is part of a grand master plan to help site owners update from using outdated PHP 5.x servers to using the newer 7.x branches.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

Phish Fight: Securing Enterprise Communications

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Yes, much of the world may have moved on from email to social media and culturally dubious TikTok dances, yet traditional electronic mail remains a foundation of business communication. And sadly, it remains a prime vector for malware, data leakage, and phishing attacks that can undermine enterprise protections. It doesn’t have to be that way.

In a just released report titled “GigaOm Radar for Phishing Prevention and Detection,” GigaOm Analyst Simon Gibson surveyed more than a dozen enterprise-focused email security solutions. He found a range of approaches to securing communications that often can be fitted together to provide critical, defense-in-depth protection against even determined attackers.

Figure 1. GigaOm Radar for Email Phishing Prevention and Detection

“When evaluating these vendors and their solutions, it is important to consider your own business and workflow,” Gibson writes in the report, stressing the need to deploy solutions that best address your organization’s business workflow and email traffic. “For some it may be preferable to settle on one comprehensive solution, while for others building a best-of-breed architecture from multiple vendors may be preferable.”

In a field of competent solutions, Gibson found that Forcepoint, purchased recently by Raytheon, stood apart thanks to the layered protections provided by its Advanced Classification Engine. Area 1 and Zimperium, meanwhile, are both leaders that exhibit significant momentum, with Area 1 boosted by its recent solution partnership with Virtru, and Zimperium excelling in its deep commitment to mobile message security.

A mobile focus is timely, Gibson says in a video interview for GigaOm. He says companies are “tuning the spigot on” and enabling unprecedented access and reliance on mobile devices, which is creating an urgent need to get ahead of threats.

Gibson’s conclusion in the report? He singles out three things: Defense in depth, awareness of existing patterns and infrastructure, and a healthy respect for the “human factor” that can make security so hard to lock down.

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When Is a DevSecOps Vendor Not a DevSecOps Vendor?

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DevOps’ general aim is to enable a more efficient process for producing software and technology solutions and bringing stakeholders together to speed up delivery. But we know from experience that this inherently creative, outcome-driven approach often forgets about one thing until too late in the process—security. Too often, security is brought into the timeline just before deployment, risking last minute headaches and major delays. The security team is pushed into being the Greek chorus of the process, “ruining everyone’s fun” by demanding changes and slowing things down.

But as we know, in the complex, multi-cloud and containerized environment we find ourselves in, security is becoming more important and challenging than ever. And the costs of security failure are not only measured in slower deployment, but in compliance breaches and reputational damage.

The term “DevSecOps” has been coined to characterize how security needs to be at the heart of the DevOps process. This is in part principle and part tools. As a principle, DevSecOps fits with the concept of “shifting left,” that is, ensuring that security is treated as early as possible in the development process. So far, so simple.

From a tooling perspective, however, things get more complicated, not least because the market has seen a number of platforms marketing themselves as DevSecOps. As we have been writing our Key Criteria report on the subject, we have learned that not all DevSecOps vendors are necessarily DevSecOps vendors. Specifically, we have learned to distinguish capabilities that directly enable the goals of DevSecOps from a process perspective, from those designed to support DevSecOps practices. We could define them as: “Those that do, and those that help.”

This is how to tell the two types of vendor apart and how to use them.

Vendors Enabling DevSecOps: “Tools That Do”

A number of tools work to facilitate the DevSecOps process -– let’s bite the bullet and call them DevSecOps tools. They help teams set out each stage of software development, bringing siloed teams together behind a unified vision that allows fast, high-quality development, with security considerations at its core. DevSecOps tools work across the development process, for example:

  • Create: Help to set and implement policy
  • Develop: Apply guidance to the process and aid its implementation
  • Test: Facilitate and guide security testing procedures
  • Deploy: Provide reports to assure confidence to deploy the application

The key element that sets these tool sets apart is the ability to automate and reduce friction within the development process. They will prompt action, stop a team from moving from one stage to another if the process has not adequately addressed security concerns, and guide the roadmap for the development from start to finish.

Supporting DevSecOps: “Tools That Help”

In this category we place those tools which aid the execution, and monitoring, of good DevSecOps principles. Security scanning and application/infrastructure hardening tools are a key element of these processes: Software composition analysis (SCA) forms a part of the development stage, static/dynamic application security testing (SAST/DAST) is integral to the test stage and runtime app protection (RASP) is a key to the Deploy stage.

Tools like this are a vital part of the security layer of security tooling, especially just before deployment – and they often come with APIs so they can be plugged into the CI/CD process. However, while these capabilities are very important to DevSecOps, they can be seen in more of a supporting role, rather than being DevSecOps tools per se.

DevSecOps-washing is not a good idea for the enterprise

While one might argue that security should never have been shifted right, DevSecOps exists to ensure that security best practices take place across the development lifecycle. A corollary exists to the idea of “tools that help,” namely that organizations implementing these tools are not “doing DevSecOps,” any more than vendors providing these tools are DevSecOps vendors.

The only way to “do” DevSecOps is to fully embrace security at a process management and governance level: This means assessing risk, defining policy, setting review gates, and disallowing progress for insecure deliverables. Organizations that embrace DevSecOps can get help from what we are calling DevSecOps tools, as well as from scanning and hardening tools that help support its goals.

At the end of the day, all security and governance boils down to risk: If you buy a scanning tool so you can check a box that says “DevSecOps,” you are potentially adding to your risk posture, rather than mitigating it. So, get your DevSecOps strategy fixed first, then consider how you can add automation, visibility, and control using “tools that do,” as well as benefit from “tools that help.”

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High Performance Application Security Testing

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This free 1-hour webinar from GigaOm Research. It is hosted by an expert in Application and API testing, and GigaOm analyst, Jake Dolezal. His presentation will focus on the results of high performance testing we completed against two security mechanisms: ModSecurity on NGINX and NGINX App Protect. Additionally, we tested the AWS Web Application Firewall (WAF) as a fully managed security offering.

While performance is important, it is only one criterion for a Web Application Firewall selection. The results of the report are revealing about these platforms. The methodology will be shown with clarity and transparency on how you might replicate these tests to mimic your own workloads and requirements.

Register now to join GigaOm and sponsor NGINX for this free expert webinar.

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