Fresh Installs of WordPress Apparently Being Hacked Based on Public Disclosure From Let’s Encrypt

It’s long been a known issue that if you place a copy of WordPress on a publicly accessible website, but don’t configure it, hackers will eventually configure it, which gives them access to the website. This works because WordPress has no restrictions on configuring it once the files are loaded on the website and you can configure it with a database on another server, so you don’t need to have access to any existing logins for the website. This isn’t usually an issue since people upload WordPress and promptly configure it, but recent claims suggest that hackers have found a way to exploit this even in that type of situation.

Let’s Encrypt is a service that provides free SSL certificates. A message on their support forum described part of what appears to be going on here:

we found more sites, which was hacked very fastly after LE generated.
Our clients start installation after LE was green, but in meantime (max 15 minutes after LE) robot from 185.59.221.* come and use WP installation files to prepare hack. Days after – on all domain call malware script and start DDOS to IP from France. I think that it is because is scanned.

A reply added further details and suggested that this part of a larger issue when it comes to hackers:

More likely they are directly polling the CT log servers, as the delay to detect new domains is much shorter. But yes, what you describe has been happening for a few years now. I see requests to paths like /.git/index within seconds of issuing new certificates!

The CT mentioned there refers to certificate transparency, which Let’s Encrypt describes this way:

Certificate Transparency (CT) is a system for logging and monitoring the issuance of TLS certificates. CT greatly enhances everyone’s ability to monitor and study certificate issuance, and these capabilities have led to numerous improvements to the CA ecosystem and Web security. As a result, CT is rapidly becoming critical infrastructure.

A topic on the WordPress’ support forum includes more discussion of what is happening and a common denominator of a malicious file being added at /wp-includes/.query.php.

One solution to this would be for WordPress to change the installation process to require that the person doing the configuration has control of the website, say, by adding a file. That would make the installation more complicated, but that might not be a big issue these days, with many installs of WordPress being handled through automated systems.

Another possible solution would be for Let’s Encrypt to delay disclosing information on newly issued certificates, which would not only have an impact on this particular situation, but possibly work against what else they are trying to accomplish.

Among the promoted sponsors and funders of Let’s Encrypt shown on their homepage, is Automattic, the company closely tied to WordPress, and several web hosts that have an emphasis on WordPress: