22 Dec

The Problem With Relying On Wordfence For Security Information

A month ago we discussed how Wordfence’s idea of keeping “site owners safe from exploitation” actually puts them at risk. Part of what we mentioned in that was that relying on security companies to tell if you plugins should be updated due to vulnerabilities being fixed is a bad idea for a number of reasons. One of them being that, as was shown with Wordfence’s post, they may be doing that well after a vulnerability was fixed, and in the case of that post, also well after it was publicly disclosed that the vulnerability was being exploited.

Along those lines it was only on December 19th that Wordfence put out a post warning about the plugin Captcha, something we did back on December 8th. That post does add some more information beyond what we identified back then, but the main point has been out there for some time before they got around to mentioning that.

When we went to look at that post we also noticed another post of theirs that is a reminder that Wordfence seems less interested providing accurate and timely information, and more interested in promoting themselves, even if that comes at the expense of people’s view of the security of WordPress.

This is Not a Brute Force Attack

The day before that post about Captcha, they had another one titled “Breaking: Aggressive WordPress Brute Force Attack Campaign Started Today, 3am UTC”, which like their previous claims along these line, isn’t true.

That can be seen starting with the last sentence of the first paragraph:

This is the most aggressive campaign we have seen to date, peaking at over 14 million attacks per hour.

A brute force attack involves trying every possible password combination to log in to a website. To give some idea of what kind of numbers that would involve, here is something we wrote on our main blog a while back:

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)

For a 6 character long password, trying half of the possible combinations at 14 million an hour would take 2,000 hours or over 83 days. So that would take a while to possibly succeed.

In this case though the numbers would be much worse since Wordfence wasn’t claiming that 14 million attempts per hour for one website, but for up to 190,000

  • We are seeing up to 190,000 WordPress sites targeted per hour.

That works out to about 74 attempts per hour per website, so this clearly isn’t a brute force attack. If they lead with that number, people would be lot less concerned, but Wordfence seems more interested in creating unnecessary fear to push their plugin:

If you have not already done so, install Wordfence immediately on your site.

And their paid service:

We strongly recommend that you upgrade to Wordfence Premium to benefit from the real-time blacklist feature which blocks any traffic from these malicious IPs.

In this case, Wordfence actually indicates what they are talking about isn’t a brute force attack, as they write:

A possible explanation for this new massive increase in brute force attacks
On December 5th, a massive database of hacked credentials emerged. It contains over 1.4 billion username/password pairs. Approximately 14% of the database contains credentials that have not been seen before. The database is also searchable and easy to use.

When we bring up the repeated false claims of brute force attacks against WordPress admin password, people have repeatedly claimed that this is simply a semantic issue, but the reality is how you handle different types of attacks is different, so you need to first need to know what is really going on.

In a case where someone is trying to login in using shared credentials the best protection against that is to not use the same username/password across websites and yet in Wordfence’s list of 8 of actions to protect against this, the relevant one is all the way at the end:

8. Do not reuse a password on multiple services. That way if you have a password from a data breach in this new database, it won’t be the same as your WordPress admin password. You can use a password manager like 1password to manage many passwords across services.

Before you get to that, five of the entries are promoting their plugin or service, for example number one is:

1. Install a firewall like Wordfence that intelligently blocks brute force attacks.

If you use the same username and password across websites and that is breached the website could be breached with as little as one login attempt and firewall is going to be able provide limited protection at best, so that shouldn’t be the number one thing to do. Two factor authentication would be a better option, but that only comes in at number 5.

Number 2 shows that they will even promote their product over mentioning where WordPress does a good job on security:

2. Ensure that you have strong passwords on all user accounts, especially admin. Wordfence Premium provides password auditing capability.

You don’t need password auditing capability as WordPress already provides a good measure of the security of passwords and by default it generates secure ones. If you wanted to improve things then it might make sense to limit passwords to strong ones, instead of trying to auditing them after the fact.

There is another problem with these types of claims, it is causing people to take the wrong lesson from them. There are several comments on Wordfence’s posts about not using WordPress because of things like this. Here is one:

Thanks for the support and heads up Mark.
This rubbish is exactly why I will no longer use WordPress.
Just this week I have already shifted my sites across to another platform.
I feel for everyone who has no idea on the simplest security measures, including the free level of Word Fence let alone paying for the Premium version.
It’s not what it costs up front, but the cost to repair, replace or fix what has been lost.

The reality is this type of attack isn’t in some way connected to WordPress or unique to it, but Wordfence presents thing in way to that leads people to believe otherwise. Probably because they are most interested in promoting their WordPress security products, even when they are not the best solution to the problem.

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