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Attacks/Breaches

10/1/2013
06:48 PM
Kevin Casey
Kevin Casey
Commentary
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WordPress Attacks: Time To Wake Up

The latest WordPress hacks highlight our continued laziness when implementing online security, a problem made worse by free, easy-to-use sites.

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If I wrote a Security 101 story in light of this news -- outdated WordPress sites are used to launch malicious attacks on other websites -- it would go something like this: Use strong passwords. Stay current on software updates and patches. Educate employees on security risks and fundamentals. Use anti-malware tools and other technologies. Wash, rinse, repeat.

You'd probably read that story, roll your eyes and mutter: "Duh, tell me something I don't already know."

Yet here we are: The world's most popular publishing platform by a considerable margin -- WordPress powers 70 million sites and counting -- moonlights as an effective tool for hackers and crooks, this time fueling distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. These aren't abandoned cat blogs, either. Sites published out of institutions like MIT, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Penn State were among the recently breached.

It's not WordPress's fault; it's ours. We love our easy-to-use, readily available -- and often low or no-cost -- digital tools. They make it easier to launch a blog, start or run a business, stay in touch, or manage a virtual office. They apparently make it easier to be lazy about information security, too.

[ The iPhone's fingerprint reader is easy to scam. What's the lesson? Read Apple Fingerprint Hack: A Great Reminder. ]

As InformationWeek's Mathew Schwartz noted: "Many WordPress administrators fail to keep their software updated or follow security best practices, such as choosing unique user names and strong passwords for WordPress admin accounts. As a result, numerous WordPress sites sporting known vulnerabilities -- or 'admin' as the admin account name -- remain sitting ducks for automated attacks."

One recent analysis of the 40,000-plus most popular WordPress sites found that 73% of installations run on a version with known vulnerabilities discoverable by automated toolkits.

Naked Security blogger Mark Stockley pointed out some potential flaws in that report's methodology, such as failing to account for Web application firewalls or other security tools. He also noted why the 73% figure might actually underreport the risks: The analysis didn't account for outdated plug-ins or weak passwords, both of which pose their own rash of security vulnerabilities. If 73% is even in the ballpark, though -- Stockley, for one, suggested it probably is -- that's an alarming stat that defies one of the go-to basics of online security: Stay current on software.

This isn't just a WordPress problem; it's just a problem. The widespread use of Windows, Adobe and Java make them fat targets, too, and laggard users that don't stay current put themselves at regular risk. The rise of social and mobile platforms have quickly thrust Facebook, Twitter, Android and others into the crosshairs as well.

The battle-tested IT pro might say: "Hey, I know all this. It's not my fault. It's the end users." There's some truth in that, especially in the bring-your-own age. It's also a copout. Your users aren't listening? Make them listen. Start with the whales: If your company publishes a WordPress site, is it running the current version?

But you're right, it's not necessarily IT's fault. Lax security is our fault. We've grown complacent. "Online security" sounds like something that should be someone else's job. It's not. Security is everyone's responsibility, yet we continue to use birthdates for passwords (and then reuse them across everything from email to banking to the corporate network). Our favorite sites roll out two-factor authentication but we don't enable it. We ignore software updates. We have no idea which apps we've granted access to our social media accounts and mobile devices. We're simply not making crooks and scammers work hard enough.

A good while back, a security researcher told me that the second a business sets foot online -- and certainly once its employees begin launching WordPress blogs, Twitter feeds, and other common platforms on the company's behalf -- it has a "moral responsibility" to protect customer information and other assets. I recall at the time thinking that sounded a tad heavy-handed. Who needs philosophy when we have common sense? In retrospect, "moral responsibility" might not be heavy-handed enough.

The so-called bad guys will always exist. But do we have to make it so darn easy for them to win?

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Lorna Garey
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Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Ninja
10/3/2013 | 4:44:43 PM
re: WordPress Attacks: Time To Wake Up
"Moral responsibility" is definitely not heavy-handed enough. Not until a company that was negligent in updating software and as a result lost customer data is sued out of existence by said customers will the average LOB leader pay attention.
SMB Kevin
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SMB Kevin,
User Rank: Apprentice
10/3/2013 | 2:07:31 AM
re: WordPress Attacks: Time To Wake Up
Brent, thanks for the input. I agree with the "security updates are now easy" sentiment for the most part. But that's actually underscoring my point here: The updates are easy and still many don't implement them. -Kevin
BrentN499
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BrentN499,
User Rank: Apprentice
10/2/2013 | 11:56:44 PM
re: WordPress Attacks: Time To Wake Up
Good post but over-inflated headline.

If all the wordpress sites were non-web standard websites, like we built in the nineties, the internet would be filled with malware.

Yes, site owners should use the built-in update tools wordpress affords but you should mention that because of wordpress 70 million websites now have the potential to stay current. This was simply not possible until web standards and wordpress became popular enough for designers and developers to embrace both.

Disagree with your friend's use of the word moral. Ethical is more accurate. There is no moral obligation to do anything online, in my humble opinion.

Better headline:
"Thanks to WordPress Website Security Updates Are Now Easy"
David F. Carr
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David F. Carr,
User Rank: Apprentice
10/2/2013 | 9:47:49 PM
re: WordPress Attacks: Time To Wake Up
I think Automattic and the rest of the developers behind WordPress have done a reasonably good job of trying to make it as easy as possible to keep the software up to date. But even with something approaching one-click simplicity, it seems not everyone can be bothered.
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