Security isn’t in great shape these days and that certainly applies to WordPress plugins as some recent issues we have run across have reminded us. As we see it, one of the causes of this is that real problems with security rarely get discussed. There are probably many factors at play to cause that, but one that we see is that people will criticize you if you say anything they interpret to be negative when it comes to security (the irony of that seems lost on them). That seems to lead to a lack of honesty about what is going on and instead a focus on happy talk that doesn’t resolve the problems, even though many could be fixed without much effort if there was an interest in doing that.
Yesterday we announced we have temporarily ended our notifications to the WordPress Plugin Directory when there are plugins with disclosed vulnerabilities in the current version of the plugin that is in the directory, until they put forward concrete plans to resolve two issues. One of those is finally warning people when they are using plugins that have been removed from the Plugin Directory for security issues. While years ago they claimed they were working on doing this, more recently they have claimed that doing so would put people at more risk. It is truly bizarre position to take just considering that many of these vulnerabilities have been publicly disclosed, so hackers would already have easy access to as much or more information than anyone has proposed including when warning webmasters of the issue. Then you have the fact that plenty of these vulnerabilities are not only known to hackers, but being actively exploited before the plugins were removed from the Plugin Directory (we know this because we have reported many of those to the Plugin Directory).
While WordPress handles security fairly well, there are plenty of problems that we have seen in the work have done that ultimately lead to this service and then in doing the work for to this service, including ones that are leading to websites being hacked that shouldn’t be and that make our work to actually get the security of plugins improved unnecessarily harder. Some of these problems are getting worse, so we have decided to stop doing work that people on the WordPress side should have been doing themselves all along until they present concretes plans to fix two of the many issues. In the short term this will leave those not using our service with worse security, but if WordPress chooses to start moving in the right direction then security can be improved from where it is now. We would then love to work with them to improve other issues, as there are lots of areas were small changes would likely lead to significant improvement.
Since 2012 we have been trying to get WordPress to start warning webmasters when their websites are using plugins that have been removed from the Plugin Directory due to security issues (and notify people in general that they are using plugins that have been removed from it). In the past WordPress’ position was that they were working on implementing this, but as of the last year the position has changed that they can’t do this because it would cause people to be “MORE at risk“. Not only does this not make sense, as we will come back to in a moment, but they don’t want to even honestly discuss the issue. For example, last July they even deleted a reply of ours on the Support forum pointing out that the handling of vulnerable plugins was not in as good shape as they were portraying it.
Due to how bad the security industry is we rarely have the ability to point to a situation where the a security company has done the right thing, but today we have one to discuss.
When it comes making sure that vulnerabilities in WordPress plugins get fixed we play important role in making that happen, but we are having to play an outsized role because others are not doing their part, which has once again lead to websites remaining vulnerable to being hacked for much longer than they should have been.
Recently we have been having an issue where someone (or someones) that has the ability to edit and delete post on WordPress’ support forum had been doing those things to some of our posts on their support forum. Last week discussed on such instance where that look liked an attempt to cover up the fact that WordPress has an ongoing problem where plugins they know contain a vulnerability that have been removed from the Plugin Directory due to that, then return to it without the vulnerability being fixed. Over at our main blog we discussed that it appears that whomever is doing it doesn’t want the public to know what is going, as in another instance they also deleted a reply to a post of ours that just thankedus for the information we provided, which if it remained, would have made it obvious that a post from us had existed and had been deleted. While preparing to write this post about the issue of WordPress’ handling a vulnerability in a plugin that appears to have been abandoned, we noticed that another such instance of a deletion that looks like an attempt to cover up yet another piece of WordPress’ current poor handling of vulnerabilities in plugins.
One of the key pieces of advice for keeping your WordPress website secure is to keep your plugins up to date, since that prevents the possibility of the website from being exploited through a security vulnerability that has been fixed in a newer version of the plugin. There is a limitation to that though, that it only protects you from vulnerabilities that the developer has fixed. So what happens if a vulnerability is discovered in a plugin available in the Plugin Directory and it doesn’t get fixed by the developer? Once the Plugin Directory is notified of the vulnerability the plugin is removed pending a fix, unless the vulnerability is really minor. That protects anyone who is not yet using the plugin, since they won’t be able to install it through normal means, but what about those who already have it installed? For them nothing happens. That is something that has concerned us for years.
Recently we have been finding that someone on the WordPress team has been deleting and editing some of our post on their support forum and because they don’t want others to know that, in one instance they even deleted someone else’s post that simply thanked us for one of our posts. While it has been rather troubling in general, one other instance that stuck out to us in the most recent purge, was a case where they removed a single sentence from a post, that sentence was “(including when the people running the Plugin Directory have failed to notice that)”, which was in reference to the fact that we often find that vulnerabilities that are claimed to have been fixed have not actually been fixed. The linked post, from the end of March, discussed the fact that plugins that had been removed from the Plugin Directory due to security issues were returning without the vulnerabilities actually being fixed.
One of the things we do to provide our customers with the best data possible on vulnerabilities that impact the WordPress plugins they use, is monitoring our websites for hacking attempts. For the first few months of the service we were seeing attempts to hack vulnerabilities already included in our data and very old vulnerabilities that we didn’t yet have in our data. Starting at the beginning of May we started seeing what looks to be requests from hackers probing for usage of plugins that we could not find any public disclosure of a vulnerability or any indication in the changelog that a vulnerability that hackers might be interested had existed and the been fixed in the plugin. When that occurs we quickly try to find if there is vulnerability that exists in the current version of the plugin that hackers would be interested in. In most cases we are able to find something that if hackers are not already exploiting, then they would exploit if they were to become aware of it (by comparison many vulnerabilities discovered in plugins are ones that are very unlikely to be exploited on the average website).