htaccess files

Keeping your website safe

Tuesday, May 4th, 2010

Once upon a time, a long time ago, you could buy a new computer and not have to worry about what type of virus scan software you needed to load onto it.  Firewalls were things only extreme geeks and intrepid hackers knew anything about.  Adware, spyware and malware weren’t even words.  Those days are so long ago that high quality, free virus scan software has not only become available, but ubiquitous, highly rated and able to hold its’ own against the big guys (see: Avast! and AVG Free vs. Norton and McAfee).

Just as the innocent days before antivirus software was a necessity are long gone, so too are the days in which website security is something to be considered only by paranoids, security professionals and government sites.  In just the last month we’ve seen WordPress sites on Network Solutions hacked (by gaining access to the database via an improperly secured wp-config.php file), GoDaddy sites hacked and then hacked again (infiltrating and embedding code into any php file — the access point of which is still, as of this writing, unknown), and then Network Solutions sites hacked again (this time by a different method, creating or editing php.ini and .htaccess files in the cgi-bin folder) including several U.S. Treasury sites.

Many of these hacks redirect the visitor to a malicious website which installs malware onto their computer which can then be used to harvest all kinds of information about the user.  Or maybe they inject your computer with malicious software and then direct you to a site that sells you antivirus software (which could, potentially, just be a cover for more data-mining spyware).  Code is indiscriminate — it doesn’t care if your site is high traffic or low traffic.  The attacks against GoDaddy and Network Solutions aren’t necessarily indications that those two webhosts have inferior security practices but rather that someone was able to find a workaround or a backdoor or had some kind of insight into the data infrastructure of those hosts which allowed them to run a script across all the sites hosted by those companies.

The point is, just because you haven’t been affected yet doesn’t mean you are safe.  It’s always better to be one step ahead of the bad guys.  Here are some ways you can keep your website, and the files it contains, safe:

File and Directory Permissions

This is the biggie.  It was due to bad file permissions that hackers were able to gain access to Network Solutions users’ databases last month.  This is also probably the most confusing safety precaution and the one most likely to accidentally render your site completely unusable (at least temporarily).  File permissions that are too permissive will allow just anyone to peek at your files, some of which may have sensitive or secure data in them.  Permissions that are too restrictive can render your site unusable by you or visitors or both.

To make things even more confusing, server permissions are generally referred to by arcane numerical codes or a string of letters, making them hard to understand for a lay person.  Take the time to familiarize yourself with what they mean, it could be the difference between your site remaining secure and having to clean hundreds of php files manually, restore from a backup, reinstall your software or risk losing all your data.

You may see permissions written out like this: drwxr-xr-x.  To a normal human being that just looks like gibberish.  To a server (and an admin or geek familiar with the lingo) the string means that: what you are looking at is a directory (drwxr-xr-x), the owner of the directory (generally the webserver or your own user account) has full read, write and execute permissions for the directory and the files contained within (drwxr-xr-x), the group (generally a server group for clients, or else an application group defined on the server) has read and execute permissions (drwxr-xr-x), and everyone else also has read and execute permissions (drwxr-xr-x).  This directory would be said to have 755 permissions:

   7      5     5
 user   group  world
 r+w+x  r+x    r+x
 4+2+1  4+0+1  4+0+1   = 755

Generally speaking, this is the default setting for most hosting environments.  And, generally speaking, it had the correct permissions to enable 99.99% of web-based applications to run correctly.  However, it does not have an ideal level of protection for anything you want to keep safe.  When WordPress sites on Network Solutions were attacked, it was pointed out that optimal permissions for the wp-config.php file should be 640 or, if that didn’t work with your hosting environment, 644 (in both cases, the execute permission is removed from all user groups — wp-config.php is a file that is read by WordPress, it is not executed, so there’s no need for the x), and in the former case, all permissions are removed from the “world” group, giving only you and your user group read permission (and only you have the ability to rewrite the file).  In most cases, you can safely increase your file permissions to 644, although typically 755 is accepted for directory permissions.

Great.  So what does that mean?

Permissions can be changed in a few different ways.  They can be done from a commandline via an SSH connection to your server, but most people probably don’t do it this way.  Permissions can be changed in an FTP program which you would have used if you uploaded a custom theme to your WordPress site or were responsible for setting up your website.  Permissions can also, often, be modified through the built-in, web-based file manager that many web hosts offer from their admin panel.  If you are using an FTP program like FileZilla, most of the time the option to change file permissions will be available upon a right-click of the file or folder you want to change permissions on, but always refer to available documentation if you have questions.  If you weren’t responsible for setting up your website and you don’t know what your file permissions are set to, contact your webmaster or designer and find out.  If they are too low, request that they change the permissions to something more secure.  Any designer worth their salt should be able to do this for you if they aren’t already (and if they can’t, you can always contact us!).

Learn more about changing file permissions.

Secure Passwords! (or: guest1234 is not a secure password…)

Now that we’ve covered the hard part (and, trust me, permissions is the hard part), we move on the the easier and more manageable stuff.  Like passwords.

You’ve been told this a million times: keep secure passwords.  You’ve been told to “keep your passwords in a secure place”.  You may even have been told never to write your passwords down (on paper or, especially not in a file on your computer).  And you’re wondering how the hell all of these things work together.  Are you really expected to memorize 20 different passwords of 8-16 alphanumeric characters and symbols?

It’s tough.  And most of us use shorthand — one password fits all, and to hell with security.

This is, increasingly, a bad idea.  Actually, this was a bad idea five years ago.  Now it’s a horrible idea.

Face it, we’re going to have to deal with this at some point and it’s better now, when your site is fine, then later, after your site has been broken into because your password for your WordPress backend, FTP and database were all “thomas13″.

There’s a couple different methods for creating secure passwords.  One is a configurable password generator.  There’s various applications you can download, websites you can go to, but the one I’m most familiar with is a plugin for Firefox.  The benefit of using a password generator is it’s completely random, therefore more secure and harder to crack, and in many cases you can specify special characters or not, numbers or not, case sensitive or not — however, the more “nots” you have in the equation, the less secure your password is.  (Even so, “SLKJJHE330″ is still more secure than the day you were born and your son’s first name.  Ed. note: that’s not the day I was born or my son’s first name.  Just saying…)

What we used to do when I worked in IT and we made custom Windows install disks or used passwords for different types of apps or servers was take a word or phrase and translate it into L33+ 5p3@K (“leet speak”).  Something like !H8s3qUr3P@s5W0rDS is easy (easier anyway) to remember and much more secure.  Even better is the fact that misspelling words makes the password more secure!  (Presuming you can remember how you misspelled it…) You still need to be careful the kinds of things you use and try to make it not too obvious.  For example, if you run a blog about your kids, and their names are Antonio and Marie, you probably don’t want to use @nt0n10&M@r13 as your password.  While you could randomize the characters and symbols to change it up, it’s best to stay away from anything too personal as a rule.

Another method I’ve heard of people using is to take a word or phrase and inject symbols and numbers in the middle.  Today’s date is 5/4/2010, and I like Battlestar Galactica, so maybe my password could be 5B4@2lt0a1r0.  Or rather than using today’s date, you could use your anniversary, your father’s birthday, the day you graduated college, anything that isn’t posted on your Facebook profile would probably work best in terms of security.

How do you keep them all straight, then?

So what if you have 5 different sites, each with a unique admin password, each with a unique database password, all hosted on the same server (so, thankfully only one FTP password, but that is different than everything else), how do you remember what’s what?  Well, you could always use the post-it method.  You could store passwords as “Notes” in Outlook or — gasp — save them in a document.  None of these are particularly great, though.  If your house was broken into, someone could easily grab all your post-its and gain access to your bank account, PayPal account, anything you use a password for.  Likewise, if your computer was ever compromised, someone could find the file that contained your passwords.  Anyone who was awake ten years ago or so would remember Microsoft Office “macro” viruses, which would enter through Outlook and then use the connectedness of the Office suite to harvest email addresses and other information from emails, your contact list, Word documents, etc, so if your passwords were stored in a Microsoft Word document, it is possible that all your passwords could be stolen by a particularly clever virus.

The solution?  Well, probably there’s some risk involved with what I’m about to suggest, but there are password managers, often protected by a password themselves, that store all of your various passwords for applications and/or websites you go to.  Many of them are built as Firefox plugins (and presumably Chrome and IE have equivalents out there as well, although I haven’t looked…yet).  This way, all of your sites can have a completely unique, completely secure password and you only need to know the one password you use to access them.  Part of me feels like even having a program like that is like putting the world’s largest diamond in a glass case and making it the centerpiece of a museum exhibit — it’s just sitting there screaming “look at me” — but, assuming you have a secure enough password to access the password manager, and — even better — change it regularly, you’ll be fairly safe, and it may be the best option in light of these new web security concerns.

Keep in mind that to be completely secure, you want your database password, FTP password, and any passwords you use to log onto  your site, or any other site, to be unique.  Using the same password means that a hacker just needs to figure out one to be able to access all of your sensitive data, and you don’t want that.

Be Prepared

So what if your site is hacked and you have no way to recover your data without trashing everything and starting over fresh?

Well, I’m sure you’ve been keeping backups, right?  You haven’t?  Oh, well in that case, you’re in trouble…

A lot of hosts will automatically create backups of all your data.  The timeframe in which the snapshots take place can range from every day to every week to every month.  Even so, it’s not safe to assume your host will have a backup — not all of them do — and even if they do have a backup, it would be beneficial to keep backups yourself, just in case your backup is more recent than theirs, or their servers go down and their backups are lost.

Within WordPress, this can be taken care of by using some highly useful plugins.  WordPress Database Backup is what we use to keep backup copies of the database, although there are others, such as WP-DBManager recommended by WPSecurityLock.  Even if you aren’t a code jockey, able to restore a database backup in your sleep, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep database backups just in case you might need a code jockey to restore your database for you.  Both allow you to schedule backups and have them stored on the server or sent to you in an email.

WordPress itself can always be downloaded from WordPress.org, and that will always be a clean copy of the most recent version.  If you did need to trash everything and start over, that would be the best place to get a clean copy of WordPress.  However, what about your plugins and your WordPress theme?  WordPress Backup backs up your uploads folder, current theme and plugins directory.  Like the database backups, it can be scheduled to back up to the server or email you a copy.  This way, if your site was infected, you would have a clean copy of all the files you’d need to purge to get rid of the virus or malware infestation.

You may also want to consider hiding your site as a WordPress site.  While obfuscation is not necessarily a means of securing your site — especially if that’s the only thing you’re doing — it might not hurt.  A hacker who knows how to get into WordPress could be diverted if, for example, your wp-login.php page was moved to a different address.  Alex Denning of WPShout has some great suggestions of ways to confound potential hackers.

If you don’t have a WordPress site, never fear.  Most popular CMS software that has any kind of development community at all should have comparable equivalents of all of the above plugins.  If not, consider talking to your webhost or hiring a programmer to build a script to backup your database and/or your files and send them in an email.  Neither should be particularly difficult and could be run in a cron job (presumably they’d know what that means even if you don’t).

Make sure you are safe

In both the Network Solutions hack and the GoDaddy hack, it was my antivirus software, Avast!, which first alerted me to a problem.  Having an A/V program that has a realtime web scanning component is incredibly beneficial to finding an infiltration and protecting yourself from being infected by your own site.

If you’re running a blog, make sure you’re doing something to filter comment spam — it’s probably the easiest way to add some nefarious links on your site from the outside and is usually very easy to prevent.  WordPress comes built in with Akismet which does all the heavy lifting of filtering out spam comments — all you need to do is register a WordPress.com account to get an API key, which I strongly recommend doing.

Also, if you are running a WordPress site (or any web-based software) make sure you keep up-to-date on your updates.  It’s not going to save you from being hacked, but often there are security updates and it’s better to install those sooner rather than later. (That said, it has been suggested that too soon has its’ own risks — sometimes updates have new holes that were missed in the testing phase and may open your site up in new and exciting ways.  I usually check for updates once a month; by then, in most cases, any potential bugs that were serious have been worked out and fixed.)

If you have been hacked, here are a couple links that can help you recover:

FAQ: My site was hacked
How to completely clean your hacked WordPress installation

Web security isn’t going to go away.  These mass website hacks are not going to go away.  And it isn’t fair to assume that your host is going to be responsible enough to protect your site in what is, in their eyes, your responsibility.  Even if you have a retainer who manages your website(s), you should still make sure you are aware of what is going on in the outside world and make sure they know what’s going on, too.  A good thing is having your tech or designer fix your site in a matter of hours after you report that there’s something fishy on your website.  A better thing is having your tech contact you first to say “there’s a hack going around, I’ve taken precautions against it, and I’m monitoring your site in case of an attack.”  You don’t want to be the one left behind with the guy who says “um…what?” when you say you think your site has been hacked, whether that guy is your “web guy” or your hosting provider.

___________________

Chris Reynolds is one half of Arcane Palette. He has a personal blog, jazzsequence, where he writes about music, technology and social media and shares links, videos, and posts various personal music and writing projects.

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