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Ten Tips to Harden Your Website

By Sander Temme

Sander will be presenting “Hardening Enterprise Apache Installations Against Attacks” and is Apache HTTP Server Track Chair at ApacheCon, the ASF’s official conference, training, and expo, taking place 1-5 November 2010 in Atlanta, Georgia.


Websites are under continuous attack. Defacement, malware insertion and data theft are but a few of motivators for the attackers, and anyone who runs an Internet-facing website should be prepared to defend themselves.

Website owners have many tools at their disposal with which to thwart online attackers; entire books have been written about this field. Here are ten tips that will quickly improve the security of your website.

1. Harden your Operating System

The default installation of your server operating system likely comes with a number of features you would not use. Turn off operating system services that are not used by your web application. Be especially wary of running anything that exposes a network listener (a network listener is a system task that listens on a given network port for incoming client connections). Uninstall software packages you do not use, or opt not to install them in the first place: the smaller your software installation, the smaller the attack surface. Use the extra security features offered by your operating system like SELinux or BSD securelevel. For instance, default SELinux configuration on Red Hat Enterprise Linux strikes a good balance where server programs that listen on the network are locked down tightly (which makes sense), but regular system maintenance utilities have the run of the system (because locking them down would be very complex to configure and maintain).

2. Use Software and Operating System that You can Maintain

The idea that one vendor’s operating system is inherently more secure than any others is largely a myth. You do not achieve increased security just by picking an operating system and then forgetting about it. Every operating system environment is subject to vulnerabilities, which get fixed and patched over time. Run your website on an operating system that you and your organization are comfortable maintaining and patching: a well maintained, up-to-date Windows server may well be more secure than a stale, unmaintained Linux installation. Your task is to maintain and defend your website, not to engage in a religious war of one operating system versus another.

3. Slim Down your Server Software

When first installed, the default configuration of server software is often intended to be a feature showcase, rather than an Internet facing deployment. Turn off unused Apache modules. Slim down your server configuration file: only include configuration directives for functionality that you actually use. Remove sample code, default accounts and manual pages: install those on your development system. Turn off all error reporting to the browser. A lean server configuration is easier to manage, and presents attackers with less opportunity.

4. Access your Management Interface over SSL

Many website environments and Content Management Systems are managed through an interface that is part of the website itself. Consider running this part of your site over SSL to protect login credentials and other sensitive data. An SSL-enabled website is protected by a cryptographic key and certificate that identify the server. You do not need to buy an expensive certificate to do this: generate your own certificate and add it to the trusted certificate store of your browser: as website manager, you are the only one who needs to trust your own certificate. Content Management Systems like Wordpress allow you to enable SSL on the management interface with a few configuration settings. Encrypting management connections with SSL is an effective way to protect your all-important login credentials.

5. White-list Allowed Actions, Blacklist Attacks

As site manager, you should know which legitimate HTTP operations users can perform on your site. Ideally, you should treat any other action as hostile, and deny it. Unfortunately, this is not always feasible or politically achievable: you may have inherited an environment in which all the valid URL and operation combinations are simply unknown, and aggressive restrictions may interfere with business operations. On the Apache web server, you can use a Web Application Firewall like ModSecurity by Ivan Ristic to allow and disallow access to particular URLs and actions. Other web server software packages provide similar features. If you are unable to white-list allowed actions, you should be able to blacklist attacks as you see them happen.

6. Use a Firewall

After a web application is compromised, the attackers will often attempt to have the application download additional malware. Or, installed malware may connect to a command-and-control server hosted elsewhere. Generally, a web application should only respond to incoming requests, and not be allowed to make outgoing TCP connections. This makes server maintenance a little more cumbersome, but it is a small price to pay for stopping attackers’ operations.

7. Keep your Software Up-to-date

Vulnerabilities are discovered on a regular basis in every operating system and on all application platforms. Fortunately, once discovered, they are usually fixed reasonably swiftly. Be sure to keep your system and software up-to-date and install all vendor patches.

8. Peruse your Logs

Your web server will log every request it handles, and will note any errors that occur. An attempt to attack your web server will likely leave a rash of error messages in your server logs, and you should monitor those logs on a regular basis to see how you are being attacked. Log monitoring can also reveal URLs and operations that initiate attacks and should be blacklisted.

9. Prevent Writing to Document Root

Your website might serve two types of content: content that you put there, and content that someone else puts there unbeknownst to you. The Internet-facing network listener that provides access to your application is its lifeline: without it your application would not be usable. However, it is also an attack vector. Through specially crafted HTTP requests, attackers will probe vulnerabilities in your application and configuration. They will try to upload content or scripts to your website: if they can get a PHP script uploaded and call it through the web server, it runs with the same privileges as the web server program and can likely be used to wreak havoc.

Content Management Systems like Joomla! and Wordpress allow site managers to upload and update plug-ins, and in some cases, to configure the server-side software through a web browser. This makes these packages really easy to use, but the drawback is that the web server program must be able to write to the server directories that contain the software. This capability is easily abused by intruders. Never allow the web server program to write to directories within the URL space of the site, where uploaded content can be served and possibly called as interpreted scripts. Instead, upload your software and plug-ins through an out-of-band mechanism like SSH or SFTP.

10. Use One Time Passwords

Abuse of login credentials is often a more successful attack method than exploitation of software vulnerabilities. Active Internet users often have dozens of User IDs and passwords on dozens of different websites. Expecting users to follow the recommendations concerning password strength and change frequency is unrealistic.

However, if there is one site for which you use strong passwords that you change on a regular basis, make it your own website management interface.

An even better way to protect login credentials is through use of One Time Passwords. This method lets you calculate a new password for every time you log into your site management interface, based on a challenge sent by the site and a PIN that only you know. Programs to calculate One Time Passwords are available for all operating systems, including smart phones, so you can carry your OTP generator with you and separate it from the network interaction with your website. Since an OTP can never be used twice, this technique makes your website management interface immune to keystroke loggers and network sniffers: even if your login information is sniffed or captured, the attackers cannot re-use it.

Conclusion: Use “The CLUB™”

The CLUB™ is a lock that you put on the steering wheel of your car as you park it. It is inexpensive and clearly visible to anyone who might consider breaking into your car and stealing it. In addition, it will encourage miscreants to skip your car and move on to a car that does not have a visible security device. Making your own car a less attractive target is a highly effective security control technique.

There is a clear analogy to the CLUB™ for defending your website: with a few relatively simple measures like the ones described above, you can thwart the scripts that automatically scan the web for vulnerable sites, and have their owners focus their attention on the many, many websites that lack basic protection.

Of course basic protective measures do not absolve you entirely: your website is likely up 24/7 and unlike car thieves, who operate in a public place, web attackers have all the time in the world to quietly pick away at the locks on your website until they find a weakness they can exploit. As a webmaster, you need to plug all the holes, but the villains need to find only one leak. Therefore, your continued vigilance is required and the tips discussed above should give you a good start.


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Sander Temme is an Enterprise Solutions Engineer for Thales E-security, whose clients include Fortune 500 companies, financial services companies and government agencies. He is a member of the Apache Software Foundation and is active in the httpd, Infrastructure and Gump projects.

Copyright © 2010, Sander Temme. Released under the Open Publication License unless otherwise noted in the body of the article. Linux Gazette is not produced, sponsored, or endorsed by its prior host, SSC, Inc.

Published in Issue 180 of Linux Gazette, November 2010