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Vulnerabilities / Threats

4/30/2020
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Researchers Find Vulnerabilities in Popular Remote Learning Plug-ins

As more students move to online learning platforms, vulnerability researchers are revealing security flaws in some common software plug-ins.

Three popular WordPress plug-ins for online learning have significant software vulnerabilities that could allow attackers to access student information, steal money from course creators, or escalate their privileges to become teachers, according to an advisory published by security firm Check Point Software Technologies. 

Researchers from the company analyzed three popular plug-ins — used by tens of thousands of schools, companies, and websites — to provide online courses and quiz capabilities. They discovered critical issues in each platform, including SQL injection, cross-site scripting, and the unrestricted ability to upload files. The company notified the creators of the plug-ins and each has produced a patched version, which closes the vulnerabilities on up-to-date platforms.

"Many courses are using WordPress plug-ins because they make it really easy to start up a website and create content," says Omri Herscovici, vulnerability research team lead at Check Point. "And, obviously, the Corona situation has raised the importance of these platforms, opening up a pretty huge attack surface area."

Online learning has received a massive boost as most US schools have canceled in-person classes and moved learning online for the rest of the school year. In addition, workers urged to stay at home and avoid going out as the economy worsens are increasingly turning to online courses to pick up new skills.

Check Point argues that the increased popularity of remote learning will lead to more scrutiny by vulnerability researchers.

"These remote learning platforms open up a potential attack vector, especially because most workers are accessing these platforms from their home," Herscovici says. "And online researchers are focusing on these platforms in use by students — like they have done with Zoom — to find security issues. 

WordPress is a popular perennial target for both attackers and security researchers.

Over the past five years, dozens of vulnerabilities have been found in the main WordPress platform. As more research has focused on popular plug-ins for the platform, vulnerabilities have skyrocketed, topping more than 1,000 issues found last year, according to the National Vulnerability Database

The specific online learning plug-ins investigated by Check Point — LearnPress, LearnDash, and LifterLMS — are used by more than 100,000 schools, organizations, and content creators. Each of the plug-ins has at least one vulnerability, which the company found during its two-week research effort, including the unrestricted uploading of files on LifterLMS (CVE-2020-6008), SQL injection vulnerabilities on both LearnDash (CVE-2020-6009) and LearnPress (CVE-2020-6010), and a previously discovered unpatched vulnerability in LearnPress that could allow a student to become a teacher (CVE-2020-11511).

"Just prior to releasing the blog we found that this vulnerability was a duplicate and was also discovered by Wordfence," Check Point stated in its advisory. "Both of the vulnerabilities we reported [to LearnPress] received the same treatment from the author – the vulnerable functions were completely purged from the new patched version. A classic case of 'the best code is no code at all.'" 

The three platforms appear to have, for the most part, escaped attention from vulnerability researchers. Only a handful of CVEs have been assigned to the platforms since 2018, and no published security flaws exist before that year in the National Vulnerability Database.

The relative lack of security auditing may be changing. In March cybersecurity service Astra found a cross-site scripting flaw in LearnDash (CVE-2020-7108). Last year, LifterLMS fixed a vulnerability (CVE-2019-15896) that could have allowed administrator accounts to be created.

"The scope of these vulnerabilities demonstrate why procurement processes should include a security verification step," said Tim Mackey, principal security strategist with application-security firm Synopsys, in a statement sent to Dark Reading. "That verification step should look for any latent or unpatched vulnerabilities, but also look for weaknesses in configuration and susceptibility to attack. While we would love to accept that all vendors apply stringent security reviews to the code they release, the reality is those practices vary considerably between organizations, and defects do slip through."

Check Point did not investigate the major online course services, such as Coursera, edX, and Udemy, which do not use publicly available software so cannot be tested without permission. Because of their size, Herscovici argues they have likely had their software analyzed and tested.

"I'm not aware of their build quality, but most of these platforms are large, so they likely have had security audits," he says. 

Herscovici hopes that Check Point's publication of details of the recent vulnerability will lead to the developers of the plug-ins and course creators taking cybersecurity more seriously.

"We wanted to raise awareness to make sure that their learning systems are secure," he says. "It's their responsibility to make sure that they fully protect customers."

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Veteran technology journalist of more than 20 years. Former research engineer. Written for more than two dozen publications, including CNET News.com, Dark Reading, MIT's Technology Review, Popular Science, and Wired News. Five awards for journalism, including Best Deadline ... View Full Bio
 

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