It’s Scary How Little Wordfence Knows About Security

If you follow the news what seem pretty clear is that cybersecurity is not in good shape these days, whether it’s major credit card breaches at retailers or hacks of high profile organizations, clearly something is very wrong. It seems unlikely that is due to a lack of spending on security products and services, consider that estimates of yearly spending on cybersecurity are in the 10s of billions of dollars and expected to continue to rise. Instead part of the explanation is that much of that money is being spent on products and services from companies that know and or care little about security.

To give you one example, anti-virus software from well known companies Kaspersky Lab, Norton, McAfee, Sophos, and Trend Micro all were found by Google researcher Tavis Ormandy to have had exploitable vulnerabilities in them. When you have to be concerned that security products are increasing your security risk that indicates something is quite wrong. But what is more striking about those vulnerabilities is the ease of exploiting some of these and that they were due in part to the companies doing dumb things. For example, in the case of Norton, quite of few of their products, including enterprise products, were subject to a remote code execution vulnerability that could be exploited by sending an email (it wouldn’t have had to be opened) that was due in part to running code at a higher privilege level than was have been needed.

As we have ramped up our Plugin Vulnerabilities service for keeping track of vulnerabilities in WordPress plugins, we have run across more of what WordPress security companies are up to and what is seen is that are not the exception when it comes to the poor state of security companies. One such example is Wordfence, we have frequently seen things that showed they either didn’t know or care much about security.

What we have wondered for some time though, is it more that they don’t know about security or if they just don’t care about it. To see why that is, take their involvement in the widespread claim that brute force attacks against WordPress admin password are occurring, despite the fact the evidence from Wordfence and other security companies actual shows that they are not. Does Wordfence had no clue what they were talking about or do they know they were telling people a falsehood to help push their product and service, seeing as those wouldn’t be needed if people knew what the malicious login attempts falsely being labeled as part of brute force attacks were most likely part of, dictionary attacks, which can be protected by simply using a strong password. We really were not sure.

In another example, Wordfence made a bold claim about being able to protect against stored XSS attacks, which we found to be false with some simple testing. In that case it could have either been that they were saying something they knew wasn’t true or it could have been that they understand so little about this type of vulnerability that they didn’t understand what incredible claim they were making and that they needed to be very careful about making it without being sure about the claiming.

We think the latest false information put forward them makes it pretty likely that they are lacking a basic understanding of security, which is frightening since so much of the WordPress community is relying on them for information and protection.

In a post about what they say are the most attack plugin vulnerabilities (worth mentioning here is that we recently found that Wordfence seems to be oblivious to vulnerabilities in plugins that are actually the biggest threat) they made a claim that we and they found out surprising, that many of the vulnerabilities being targeted were local file inclusion (LFI) vulnerabilities:

The large number of local file inclusion vulnerabilities that are being exploited is surprising. I should also note that many of these LFI’s were discovered by Larry Cashdollarwho I had the pleasure of seeing speak at Defcon in Las Vegas 2 weeks ago. So I suspect that many of these are being used in an attack script of some kind which may explain their prevalence in the attacks we’re seeing.

The clustering of LFI’s together and Shell exploits together in the list order is odd, but I don’t have a theory to explain that and there is no error in the data that accounts for that. It appears to be coincidence.

Considering that everything we know from monitoring plugin vulnerabilities and dealing with lots of hacked websites is that this type of vulnerability is rarely targeted, this seemed odd. But a quick look at the data they presented showed a simply explanation, local file inclusion vulnerabilities were not actually be targeted. Instead what was being targeted were what we refer to as arbitrary file viewing vulnerabilities (they are also often referred to arbitrary file download or directory traversal vulnerabilities), which are very different.

Before we get in to what each of those type of vulnerabilities is,  it is worth mentioning that Wordfence really had to go out of their way to get this wrong, as can easily seen by the fact that the first five vulnerabilities they listed as being local file inclusion vulnerabilities are actually listed in the linked to advisories as being the following types of vulnerabilities:

Not one of those is listed as listed local file inclusion vulnerability, so Wordfence must have thought they were all wrong.

A local file inclusion (LFI) vulnerability allows an attacker to include a file that exists on the file system of the server the website is on (a remote file inclusion (RFI) vulnerability allows the same with a file that exists somewhere else). For this type of vulnerability to useful to a hacker they either need to be able to place a file on the website or there needs to be a file thats inclusion in this way causing a security issue. Since those do not appear to be readily available in most cases it follow that this type of vulnerability is not often being exploited.

An arbitrary file viewing vulnerability allows viewing the contents of a file that exists on the website. With WordPress websites we frequently see attempts to exploit this type of vulnerability to view the contents of the wp-config.php file. If successful that would provide the attacker with the database credentials associated with the website. For that to be useful the attacker would need to be able to connect to the database, their ability to do that varies greatly depending on the hosting setup. While we see many attempts to exploit this type of vulnerability, we see it being the cause of a website being hacked much less than arbitrary file upload vulnerabilities, which we also see many exploit attempts against.

While Wordfence’s lack of understanding what each of these vulnerabilities would likely has some impact on protecting against them, it would have an even bigger impact on their properly doing hack cleanups (which they also offer) since it greatly helps to understand what security vulnerabilities have existed on the website to determine the source of the hack and the impact the exploitation of a vulnerability could have had.

If you care about security we would recommend you help us get the truth about Wordfence out to a wider audience so that together we can lessen the damage they are doing toward the security of so many websites.

Posted in Bad Security | Tagged | 2 Comments

Questionable Support Advice on Dealing With Hacked Websites From WordPress and Norton Safe Web’s Mystery Blacklisting

One of the things we do to keep track of vulnerabilities in WordPress plugins for our Plugin Vulnerabilities service is to monitor the WordPress support forum for threads related to them. In addition to threads that actual relate to that issue, we frequently run into to other security related threads. In doing that we noticed that in many threads a reply containing the same advice is given, which consisted mainly of a series of links. Some of the pages linked don’t seem to provide the best information, so we wondered if the various members providing that reply were actually aware of what they were linking to or if they were just repeating something they had seen others saying. While looking into another issue involving the forum we found that the source of the message was from a series of pre-defined replies for moderators.

While looking into another thread that came up during that monitoring of the forum we came across evidence that one of the links they include, a link to something called Sucuri SiteCheck, may not be the most appropriate to include. In that thread the original poster had written:

Sucuri is showing my site as harmful and is asking for $16/month to fix it, yet my site seems fine, traffic is normal and I have no log in / access problems on any browser or device.

When we went to look to see why Sucuri was claiming the website was harmful, the SiteCheck page was light on details and high on pushing you to use their service:

sucuri-sitecheck-results

Looking at the other two tabs of information, the only issue that they were identifying was that website was blacklisted by “Norton Safe Web”:

sucuri-sitecheck-blacklist-status

It seems to us that a service would be careful in situation where they are not themselves detecting anything malicious, but Sucuri seems to be labeling the website as “Site Potentially Harmful” and “Site Likely Compromised” based only on the fact that Norton Safe Web was blacklisting it. Based on our limited experience with Norton Safe Web, that would seem to not be appropriate because the results we have seen from it in the past have been rather poor.

Looking at what they are claiming to have detected with this website makes us more confident of the position.

Here is what they are reporting as of now:

norton-safe-web-report

You can see they are not claiming that there are any “computer threats” or “identity threats”, just an “annoyance factor”. What the “annoyance factor” isn’t really further explained, with the only information being that  a page is listed as having a “SWBPL” threat. There is no explanation what a “SWBPL” threat is either on the page or through a link. In searching around to try to find out what that is, we found that we were not alone in trying to figure that and that even some people at Norton did not know what it is. The most detailed information we could find was in a thread on the Norton website, where it was stated that:

SWBPL is one of the threat type in safeweb which is based on telemetry which we collect from 3rd party vendor feeds. Since these sites are classified based on the static data it is pron to few FPs

So Norton is apparently warning about the website based on unidentified third-party’s data, which is also apparently prone to  a “few” false positives. That doesn’t really seem like something that should be the source for Norton warning about a website and certainly shouldn’t be used by someone else to make claims as to the security of the website.

Looking at the URL they identified as being a “SWBPL” threat, visiting it normally just returns a “Page not Found” message and when visiting it in some other ways didn’t produce any different result. Without having access to the backend of the website we can’t rule out there is some issue with it, but from the outside there is nothing we could find harmful about it.

We hope that WordPress will review the boiler plate message they provide to those with questions about hacked websites and consider if they are providing the best information in it.

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Automattic Helping Security Companies Peddle False Narrative of Brute Force Attacks Against WordPress Admin Passwords

Last week we looked at one example of the poor state of security information surrounding WordPress, security companies falsely claiming that brute force attacks against WordPress admin passwords are happening (and also offering products and services that are supposed to protect against that non-existent threat). That has negative impact on security since you end with a lot focus and concern on something that isn’t actually threat while other issues, like the poor state of WordPress plugin security, which actually leads to websites being hacked, don’t get the focus and concern they should and needs to get.

While security companies being part of the problem isn’t something that really surprises anymore, considering that most of them seem to either know and or care little about security, when other companies that you would expect to be better, are part of the problem, it is surprising to us. That brings us to the company closely connected to WordPress, Automattic, which has among their offerings the plugin Jetpack.

Despite the fact that brute force attacks simply are not happening, protection against them is prominently advertised feature of the Jetpack plugin. As can be seen on the plugin’s page on wordpress.org:

jetpack-plugin-directory-page

and on the features page on the plugin’s website:

jetpack-features-page-security-section

It easy to think the public would be more likely believe that they were happening when they see that.

At the same time the Jetpack website provides further confirmation that brute force attacks are in fact not happening. Going back to our previous post, with a password made up of numbers and letters (upper case and lower case) that is six characters long, there are over 56 billion possible combinations. By comparison according to the website, Jetpack has only blocked over 1 billion attempts:

Jetpack has blocked over one billion malicious log-in attempts aimed at our users’ WordPress websites.

While that might be enough attempts for a brute force attack to succeed if they all occurred on one website, that is a cumulative total across possibly millions of websites and maybe for a period of over a year, so it shows that there are not even close to enough attempts for brute force attacks to be happening.

We hope that Automattic will become more consciousness of the impact they have on the security of WordPress going forward, because it would be a help to us and others that are trying to improve the situation.

Posted in Bad Security, WordPress | Tagged , | 2 Comments

WordPress Also Disappeared a Support Forum Post That Just Thanked Us

Recently we have discussed about how someone (or someones) at WordPress is disappearing some of our posts from the their support forum, including an instance where the original poster was left with only bad information from a forum moderator, while our post with the solution to their issue was deleted. Why they are doing that is a mystery, but the end result is that public is left without important information like in that case. While looking over the most recent round of this we noticed that whomever is doing this feels the need to hide what is going on from the public by deleting not just our posts, but in one case deleting a benign response from someone else thanking us, which would have made it obvious that our post was removed if that response remained.

Before we get into the details of the disappeared posts, it worth noting what is supposed to a reason to have a post deleted or edited from the forum:

Generally speaking, posts are only edited or removed where to do otherwise might lead to serious consequences. Previous examples have included posts that accidentally incorporated proprietary code or where the poster asking has reason to fear for their online safety. Having a posted site url come up in Google in NOT a serious consequence. In each case, use your best judgement or ask for a second opinion. If the final decision to to leave the post “as is”, use something like:

When a post is made and people contribute answers to an issue, that then becomes part of the community resource for others to benefit from. Deleting posts removes this added value. Forum topics will only be edited or deleted if they represent a valid legal, security, or safety concern.

Back in April someone posted on the support forum for the JQuery Html5 File Upload plugin, indicating they were seeing bots checking for the existence of the plugin and wondering if their were exploits to be expected in the plugin. Shortly after they we responded, explaining that the likely cause of this was a false report of a vulnerability in the plugin that was released a week before. The original poster then responded thanking us for the information, “@White Fir Design, thank you for your post!”. Earlier this week as part of the latest purge our post was deleted, though as this screenshot of the changes made shows it wasn’t the only thing deleted (the posts with a red background were removed):

disappeared-1

You can see that they not only removed our post, but the response to it. The response couldn’t possibly have lead to “serious consequences” if it remained and there is no “valid legal, security, or safety concern” that could have required it to be deleted. So the only explanation left is that whomever deleted our post wanted to cover up the fact that they were doing that from the public, since if the reply remained it would be obvious that another post by has had been removed.

Among the other posts deleted was another reply about a false report of a vulnerability:

disappeared-2

What would be a “valid legal, security, or safety concern” that would require that to be deleted?

In another thread a post was removed were we provided a timeline of a hacking campaign and suggested someone to review the log files for their website to determine the source of the hacking:

disappeared-3

Again, what would be a “valid legal, security, or safety concern” that would require that to be deleted?

The final situation we will highlight is a little different, in this case they didn’t delete a whole post, instead they just deleted a sentence mentioning that the people running the Plugin Directory have failed to notice that vulnerabilities still existed in plugins and linked to a page that discussed the problem:

disappeared-4

It is quite troubling that someone is trying to sweep under the rug a serious and ongoing problem with WordPress’ handling of security issues in plugins, instead of working on making sure that the problem doesn’t happen anymore.

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WordPress Disappears Our Response To Post Indicating that Wordfence Premium Failed To Protect Websites From Being Hacked

When it comes to improving the security of WordPress ecosystem one of the things that is desperately needed is better security information. For example, if you were to look at discussions of WordPress security you would likely to believe that there were a lot of attempts to brute force WordPress admin passwords, despite the evidence from the WordPress security companies claiming they are happening showing that those supposed brute force attacks are not happening at all. Unfortunately, one of the parties we have recently found being an impediment to improving security information that is available to the public is WordPress, or more specially, one or more of the people involved in moderating their forums.

Several weeks ago we discussed how someone at WordPress was disappearing some of our posts on the wordpress.org support forum and it has happened again just in the last day. Since one of the threads that had a reply of ours removed, touches on some important security issues that are in need better information, we thought it would be a good idea to discuss it here, especially since someone at WordPress doesn’t want accurate security information related to that to be accessible to people reading their forum for some reason.

One of the things we do to keep track of what plugin vulnerabilities are out there to make sure we provide the best data for our Plugin Vulnerabilities service is to monitor the wordpress.org support forums for threads discusses such issues. In doing that we run into threads discussing an assortment of other security issues, which we sometimes add a response when we can provide some insights based on knowledge of plugin security and hack cleanups of WordPresw website. Yesterday we ran into a thread involving a claim that several websites were hacked due to a third-party library included with WordPress, SWFUpload.

There we several things that stuck out to with this post. One, was that person, who discussing a hack of several of their clients websites, did not appear to have tried to properly determine how the website were hacked, instead they just seem to be guessing that it was caused by SWFUpload:

Now I think I found the hackers method, I believe they used “swfupload”.

Any security scan will not show “swfupload” as a danger because WordPress (foolishly) includes these script files for legacy reasons. Apart from that, the files in folder “swfupload” are not needed for current WordPress installs. These are old files and since they are old they are NO longer updated to stop hackers.

Now that I had 2 client websites hacked and malicious files uploaded, I believe that is the weak spot in WordPress allowing the hacker to gain access.

If that were the source of the hackings there should be evidence of the log files, which their post made no mention of reviewing (despite being a basic part of a hack cleanup). It seems highly unlikely that was the source, since if a hacker were to have discovered a vulnerability that allows hacking websites throughWordPress it is likely they would try to hack as many websites as possible quickly before it was discovered that their was issue since once it was, WordPress could quickly release an automatic update that would protect the vast majority of WordPress websites within a day. Seeing as we haven’t seen any evidence to point to a hack of WordPress itself occurring recently, it seem unlikely that was the source. The first two paragraphs (of total a three) of our response discussed those things:

If there was a known vulnerability that could be exploited like this in the version of SWFUpload included with WordPress it is likely that there would be a lot of websites being hacked through it right now, but we are not seeing any evidence of something like that going on at this point, so it isn’t likely to be the source of your hackings.

What you will want to do is to review the log files for the websites to see what evidence they provide as to the source of the hackings. If SWFUpload was in fact the source then there should be evidence of that in the HTTP log and that evidence would also provide information needed for the WordPress developers to work on fixing it.

The other major thing that stuck out what this person surprise that the website had been hacked while using the Wordfence Premium service:

I had 2 of my client WordPress sites hacked in this past month and they uploaded malicious PHP and JS files to infect the site with a backdoor PHP script. When I found the hacked upload 2 weeks ago in one client’s site, I wondered how did they got into the site while using WordFence Premium?

Should that be surprising? Not to anyone who is actually knowledgable about security, since in reality the various website security products and services out there provide at best limited protection against real threats against websites (and sometimes they actually are the security threat). For example, a WordPress security plugin would have no ability to stop an attacker who gains access to the FTP credentials from accessing the website’s files and in fact if the attacker wanted to they could modify the security plugin to ignore any changes they made to the website.

For Wordfence in particular it wasn’t surprising to us that their service wouldn’t protect a website considering among other thing they are one of the security companies pushing false claims of brute force attacks (while advertising that their service will protect you from them) and that we recently found their claim that their plugin would protect against stored XSS vulnerabilities was not supported when testing real world vulnerabilities against it. When it comes to their paid service, Wordfence Premium, back in June we noted that it was failing to detect vulnerabilities that were being exploited in the current versions of plugins. We concluded our response by mentioning that, since it is relevant for someone thinking that the service would protect them, that said service is oblivious to vulnerabilities that are being exploited and could actual be a cause of the hackings:

Since you brought up Wordfence Premium, it is worth noting that the service looks to have missed detecting exploitation of numerous vulnerabilities that were in the current version of WordPress plugins, so its ability to protect websites against real world threats is at least somewhat limited.

Was someone at WordPress trying to cover up the fact that Wordfence Premium has serious problem in its protection by removing our response, we don’t know, but removing our post had the same effect.

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GoDaddy’s Managed WordPress Hosting Fails to Provide Important Security Feature

We were recently brought in to deal with a WordPress website that had been hacked multiple times and just re-hacked. In that type of situation one of the first things that should be done is to review the log files available for the website, since those are likely to provide evidence on how the website is being re-hacked and depending on how far the logs go back, how the website was originally hacked.

One of the big problems we find in being able to review the log files of a hacked website, is that often times web hosts only store the log of HTTP activity for a short period, in some cases less than a days worth of logging is available. One of the better web hosts when it comes to this is GoDaddy. With their standard web hosting accounts using their own control panel, they store about a months worth of logging. When using the cPanel control panel instead, the log is stored for a shorter time period by default, but you can enable archiving, so we can at least make sure it stored for a longer period once we get started on the cleanup.

The website we are dealing with in this case though was in GoDaddy’s Managed WordPress hosting account, which we would find out when the client tried to get access to the log files, does not provide any access to the log files. We are puzzled that they manage to provide that in the standard web hosting accounts, but not not in what would seem to us to be a higher end type of account. The explanation for why they can not provide it, is also puzzling, as they say they can’t provide it because the website is hosted in a shared environment. The other web hosting accounts are also on shared environment and yet they manage to provide them there.

If you are concerned about security we would recommend that you not use their Managed WordPress hosting until they resolve this, since if you were to get hacked, you are going to be missing important information needed to properly clean it up (is worth mentioning that many companies that do hack cleanups either don’t know how to do things properly or are cutting corners and don’t review the log files like they should).

While we were looking over the marketing materials for the service we noticed some security claims that are also worth mentioning. One of the “key features” of the service is that they “keep the bad guys away”:

Keep bad guys at bay Your site gets the personal bodyguard treatment, 24/7. Our security team monitors, thwarts, and deflects so you can rest easy.

Seeing as the website we are dealing with got hit multiple times while using this hosting service, their ability to actually protect the websites is is at least limited.

The ability to protect the website is also contradicted by another feature available in one level of account, which removes malware from the website:

Malware scan & removal Hackers can inject malicious code—malware--into your site to steal info or deface your site. With SiteLock Professional Malware scan (included with Ultimate plan), malware’s found and destroyed before it harms you or your customers.

If they were actually able to protect the websites, as they advertise, then there shouldn’t be any malware getting on the website that needs to be removed.

We would also have wondered about the fact that the company SiteLock would be involved in doing hack cleanups on this service, when they can’t do things properly because the logs are not available, if not for the fact that we have seen that SiteLock doesn’t seem to seem to be interested in properly cleaning up websites and is known for taking advantage of their customers.

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The Company Upgrading Your Magento Store Might Not Have Any Prior Knowledge of How to Do That

We feel that it is important that we only provide services were we have the necessary expertise to properly handle the work, that isn’t something that is shared by every other web development company, as were recently reminded in a situation involving a Magento upgrade.

We were contacted by a web development company about doing a Magento upgrade for them (the company portrays themselves as being based in New York, despite it being rather obvious they are actually based out of India due to things like the companies name ending “IN” after the rest of the name was in lower case). After sending a few emails back and forth they were supposed to be getting us the login details to get started working on the upgrade.

Four days later they get back to us and say they had now upgraded the Magento software, but needed help upgrading the extension. We were rather perplexed by this, as it is much easier to upgrade the extensions than Magento, so how is that they could handle upgrading Magento, but not the extensions? When we asked them that we didn’t get a direct answer, instead they replied with the steps they took to upgrade Magento.

The steps they took indicated that they didn’t not actually know how to upgrade Magento, that started with it looking like they had just copied the steps from some random website. That is concerning since they apparently were not even familiar enough with Magento to even know about the official upgrade instructions. Of more concern is that they were not doing things right, as they skipped doing a test of the upgrade, which is very important to having a successful upgrade. Something their customer is unfortunately fairly likely to find out down the road when something doesn’t work right on the upgraded website.

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iThemes Security Uses Non-Existent Threat of Brute Force Attacks To Collect Users’ Email Addresses

When it comes to security companies, trustworthiness is critical, since the average person isn’t going to have the knowledge and skills to understand if the security company is actually doing (or could even possibly do) what they are claiming to do to protect them. Any upstanding security company would therefore be very careful in what they say and do, so if you see a company being less than honest it should be a major red flag when it comes to using their products and services.

That brings us to something we noticed in the WordPress security plugin iThemes Security. When you install the plugin a notice is displayed at the top of pages in the admin area that read “New! Take your site security to the next level by activating iThemes Brute Force Network Protection”

New! Take your site security to the next level by activating iThemes Brute Force Network Protection. Get Free API Key

If you get click the “Get Free API Key” button in that notice you get shown the following page:

Network Brute Force Protection If one had unlimited time and wanted to try an unlimited number of password combinations to get into your site they eventually would, right? This method of attack, known as a brute force attack, is something that WordPress is acutely susceptible to as, by default, the system doesn't care how many attempts a user makes to login. It will always let you try again. Enabling login limits will ban the host user from attempting to login again after the specified bad login threshold has been reached. Network vs Local Brute Force Protection Local brute force protection looks only at attempts to access your site and bans users per the lockout rules specified locally. Network brute force protection takes this a step further by banning users who have tried to break into other sites from breaking into yours. The network protection will automatically report the IP addresses of failed login attempts to iThemes and will block them for a length of time necessary to protect your site based on the number of other sites that have seen a similar attack. To get started with iThemes Network Brute Force Protection, please supply your email address and save the settings. This will provide this site with an API key and starts the site protection. Email Address test@example.com Receive Email Updates Receive email updates about WordPress Security from iThemes.

On that page they accurately describe what a brute force attack is, so clearly they know what it is. What they either don’t know or they are intentionally not telling people is that brute force attacks against WordPress admin passwords are not happening, so you are not taking your site security to the next level by enabling that feature as they claim.

What makes this more troubling is that they are using the non-existent threat of brute force attacks to try to collect users’ email addresses. By default permission to send “email updates about WordPress Security” is also included when doing that and considering in the best case here they are not aware of it pretty basic security fact that brute force attacks are not happening, the quality of the security information they would provide in those email is likely to be poor.

Just based on this it would seem like a good idea to avoid this company and their plugin, but it isn’t the only issue with found with the plugin recently. Back in April we ran across the fact that the plugin had button labeled “One-Click Secure” that didn’t do anything.

Posted in Bad Security, WordPress Plugins | Tagged | Leave a comment

No One Is Trying To Brute Force Your WordPress Admin Password

When it comes to improving the security of the WordPress ecosystem one of the biggest problems we see is the shear amount misleading and often times false information that is put out by security companies. One of the most frequent falsehoods we see is the claim that there are a lot of attempts to brute force WordPress admin password. Not only is the claim false, but is so obviously false that these security companies either don’t understand the basics of security or they are knowingly lying to the public, either of which would be a good reason for you to avoid them.

To understand how you can tell that these brute force attacks are not happening, it helps to start by looking at what a brute force attack involves. A brute force attack does not refer to just any malicious login attempt, it involves trying to login by trying all possible passwords until the correct one is found, hence the “brute force” portion of the name. To give you an idea how many login attempts that would take, let’s use the example of a password made up of numbers and letters (upper case and lower case), but no special characters. Below are the number of possible passwords with passwords of various lengths:

  • 6 characters long: Over 56 billion possible combinations (or exactly 56,800,235,584)
  • 8 characters long: Over 218 trillion possible combinations (218,340,105,584,896)
  • 10 characters long: Over 839 quadrillion possible combinations  (839,299,365,868,340,224)
  • 12 characters long: Over 3 sextillion possible combinations  (3,226,266,762,397,899,821,056)

Now that you have an idea of the number of requests it would take to actually do a brute force attack, lets look at the number of attempts that security companies are claiming are occurring that support their claim that brute force attacks are going on.

First up is Wordfence, back in January they put out a post about the claim that brute force attacks are going on and gave a figure for how many login attempts had occurred over a recent 16 hour period (they call each login attempt an attack):

During this time we saw a total of 6,611,909 attacks targeting 72,532 individual websites. We saw attacks during this time from 8,941 unique IP addresses and the average number of attacks per victim website was 6.26.

The total during that time period likely isn’t any where near enough login attempts for even one brute attack to be successful, but with less 7 attempts per website, that clearly is not evidence of brute force attacks actually occurring.

How about Sucuri Security, they have a page on their website entitled WordPress Brute Force Attacks, that is supposed to present the “state of brute force attacks against WordPress sites”. The graph shown there includes failed login attempts for websites “protected” behind their website firewall. There is an obvious issue with that since failed login attempts are not necessarily malicious, so the graph is not necessarily entirely that accurate. Even with that caveat, the largest amount on one day looks to be have been about 50 million requests:

sucuri-security-brute-force-graph

We don’t know how many websites that is split across, but even if it was one website that likely wouldn’t be nearly enough for one successful brute force attack per day.

In one instance recently, someone we perviously did some work for contacted us because they had gotten an email from Sucuri’s WordPress plugin that was alerting them to brute force attack. In that instance Sucuri was claiming that a brute force attack was occurring based on a total of 30 login attempts.

Security Companies That Don’t Understand the Basics of Security

Back in September of last year Sucuri not only claimed that brute force attacks where happening, but also claimed that brute force attacks are frequent source of hacking (despite the fact that they are not actually happening at at all):

However, brute force attacks are still going strong. In fact, they are one of the leading causes of website compromises.

So what could explain the false claims about brute force attacks?

One explanation is that these security companies don’t have an understanding of the basics of security, like knowing what a brute force attack is. Considering you don’t have to look at some obscure resource to know what they are, you just have to go to the Wikipedia, there isn’t any excuse for that.

The other explanation is that these security companies do know what a brute force attack actually is, but they are lying about them happening since if they told what was actually happening they wouldn’t be able to use it to push the products and services they provide. That would have the added bonus of allowing them to claim they can protect against something, without having to worry about that turning out to not be true (as we recently found with another claimed protection by Wordfence), since the brute force attacks are not actually happening.

Protecting Yourself From the Real Threat, Dictionary Attacks

So based on those security company’s data brute force attacks are not going on, but there are malicious login attempts happening, so what is actually happening? Based on looking at actual login attempts and the number of requests it looks like most of the malicious login attempts are from dictionary attacks.

A dictionary attack involves trying to log in using common passwords, think things like “123456” and “123admin”.

With dictionary attacks protecting your website is really easy, just use a strong password. Thats it. You don’t need to put in place all sorts of other protection, since the dictionary attacks will fail as long as you do that. WordPress now defaults to generating a strong password and displays a password strength indicator if someone chooses to create their own password, so if you have an Administrator choosing to use a weak password, you probably have bigger issues to worry about. If you are concerned about lower level users using weak passwords and then being subject to dictionary attacks, there are a number of options to enforce stronger passwords that are available.

With it being that easy to prevent what is going on, it would be difficult for security companies to promote products and services to deal with this, so that is why we wonder if they are intentionally lying about what is going on.

It also worth noting that there is likely a quite a bit of overlap between the passwords tried during different dictionary attacks, so the amount passwords tried is likely much less than the total attempts occurring over even a fairly short period of time.

Help Us Clear Things Up

If you see someone claiming that brute force attacks against WordPress admin accounts are happening, we would appreciate if you point them to this post, so that we can start to clear up the false information being pushed by those security companies and people can start focusing on properly protecting themselves.

Posted in Bad Security, WordPress | Tagged , | 7 Comments

Your Web Developer Might Not Be the Best Person to Handle Cleaning Up a Hack of Your Website

When it comes to cleaning up hacked websites, the reality is that a lot of the companies that offer to do that don’t know how to do it properly or are intentionally cutting corners. We know this because we are often hired to re-clean hacked website after they get re-hacked and the first thing we always ask when somebody mentions that they perviously had someone else try to clean it, is if the previous company was able to determine how the website was hacked. Trying to determine how the website was hacked is one of the three main components of a proper hack cleanup, so the answer to that question should always be that they were or the reason that they were unable to determine how it was hacked (which is often the case due to poor log archiving practices at many web hosts). In almost all cases the response we get back is some variation of of that the issue of how the website was hacked was never even brought up by the cleanup company. When companies are not doing basic parts of the cleanup it really isn’t all that  surprising that the website doesn’t get fully fixed and it needs to be re-cleaned.

Since it is hard to for someone to determine whether a company they don’t have prior experience with is on the level or if they will make claims that about what they do and their level of expertise (as so many companies offering to clean up hacked website seem to do) working with a web developer or similar person you already have a relationship would seem to be a fairly good idea. The reality is that it can lead to poor handling of a hack cleanup, so you should at least get a second opinion on what to do, if you are considering having them handle it.

A recent example of them handling that in a less that ideal way involves a situation we were contacted about recently. A web developer contacted us about the possibility of us doing an upgrade of a Joomla 1.0 installation on a customer’s business website ASAP. When we went to take a look at the website we noticed it was serving up malware and was being blocked by Google. At that point we suggested that the website be cleaned and then seeing as moving from Joomla 1.0 is major migration, to then take their time doing the migration instead of rushing it. At that point they replied that they were aware that the website was hacked and that moving to the new version was their solution.

Doing an upgrade or migration usually not a good way to try to deal with a hacked website, since that may not remove much, if any, of the malicious items added by the hacker and the hack may be unrelated to the software being changed, so the website may just as vulnerable to exploitation after doing the upgrade or migration. For a major upgrade or migration it is also going to takes longer then a hack cleanup and it you rush that there could be even more problems that need to be dealt with down the road. In this case, when we went to see if things had been resolved a week later, the website was still hacked and had not been moved to a newer version, whereas with a hack cleanup things can usually be resolved in a matter of hours, so the business had lost at least a weeks worth of business brought in by their website.

Also concerning to us in this case was the fact that the web developer had said they wanted to move to Joomla 2.5 or Joomla 3, despite the fact that support for that version had ended back in December of 2014.

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